Did the last common ancestor have a biological membrane?
Abstract All theories about the origin and evolution of membrane bound cells necessarily have to cope with the nature of the last common ancestor of cellular life. One of the most important aspect of this ancestor, whether it had a closed biological membrane or not, has recently been intensely debated. Having a consensus about it would be an important step towards an eventual (though probably still remote) synthesis of the best elements of the current multitude of cell evolution models. Here I analyse the structural and functional conservation of the few universally distributed proteins that were undoubtedly present in the last common ancestor and that carry out membrane-associated functions. These include the SecY subunit of the protein-conducting channel, the signal recognition particle, the signal recognition particle receptor, the signal peptidase, and the proton ATPase. The conserved structural and functional aspects of these proteins indicate that the last common ancestor was associated with a hydrophobic layer with two hydrophilic sides (an inside and an outside) that had a full-fledged and asymmetric protein insertion and translocation machinery and served as a permeability barrier for protons and other small molecules. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the last common ancestor had a closed biological membrane from which all cellular membranes evolved.Show more [+] Less [-]