Discovery of electric fields in biological condensates could provide clues to origin of life

The human body relies heavily on electrical charges, with lightning-like pulses of energy traveling through the brain and nerves, and most biological processes depending on electrical ions crossing cell membranes. Researchers previously believed that this imbalance in electrical charges required the presence of a cellular membrane. However, Stanford University researchers discovered that similar imbalances can exist between microdroplets of water and air. Duke University researchers have now found that these types of electric fields also exist within and around biological condensates, which are structures that form compartments inside cells without needing the physical boundary of a membrane. This discovery, published in the journal Chem, could change how researchers think about biological chemistry and provide insight into how the first life on Earth harnessed energy. The researchers found that when electric charges jump between materials, they can produce molecular fragments that form hydroxyl radicals and hydrogen peroxide.

Researchers at Duke University have made a groundbreaking discovery that could change the way scientists understand biological chemistry. They have found that electric fields exist within and around biological condensates, a type of cellular structure that forms compartments inside cells without the need for a physical boundary like a membrane. This finding could provide clues about how the first life on Earth harnessed the energy needed to arise.

Biological condensates are formed by differences in density, and cells can build them to either separate or trap together certain proteins and molecules, hindering or promoting their activity. The Chilkoti laboratory, which specializes in creating synthetic versions of biological condensates, was able to create a test bed for the researchers’ theory by combining the right formula of building blocks to create minuscule condensates and adding a dye that glows in the presence of reactive oxygen species.

The researchers found that, under the right environmental conditions, the condensates produced a glow from the edges, confirming the presence of a previously unknown phenomenon. This reaction within our cells is not yet fully understood, but the researchers suggest that it could provide a plausible explanation for where the energy came from in the absence of enzymes to catalyze reactions in a prebiotic environment.

The implications of this discovery are important to many different fields, according to Yifan Dai, a Duke postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study. While previous work on biomolecular condensates has focused on their innards, Dai’s discovery suggests that they are also endowed with a critical chemical function that is essential to cells. It remains to be seen how this ongoing reaction within our cells affects biological processes, but the discovery of the redox reaction in biological condensates could lead to new insights into the functioning of cells and the origins of life.

Source: Duke University

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