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The fate of proteins in outer space

  • Gavin M. Seddon (a1) and Robert Paul Bywater (a1) (a2)

It is well established that any properly conducted biophysical studies of proteins must take appropriate account of solvent. For water-soluble proteins it has been an article of faith that water is largely responsible for stabilizing the fold, a notion that has recently come under increasing scrutiny. Further, there are some instances when proteins are studied experimentally in the absence of solvent, as in matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization or electrospray mass spectrometry, for example, or in organic solvents for protein engineering purposes. Apart from these considerations, there is considerable speculation as to whether there is life on planets other than Earth, where conditions including the presence of water (both in liquid or vapour form and indeed ice), temperature and pressure may be vastly different from those prevailing on Earth. Mars, for example, has only 0.6% of Earth's mean atmospheric pressure which presents profound problems to protein structures, as this paper and a large corpus of experimental work demonstrate. Similar objections will most likely apply in the case of most exoplanets and other bodies such as comets whose chemistry and climate are still largely unknown.

This poses the question, how do proteins survive in these different environments? In order to cast some light on these issues we have conducted a series of molecular dynamics simulations on protein dehydration under a variety of conditions. We find that, while proteins undergoing dehydration can retain their integrity for a short duration they ultimately become disordered, and we further show that the disordering can be retarded if superficial water is kept in place on the surface. These findings are compared with other published results on protein solvation in an astrobiological and astrochemical setting. Inter alia, our results suggest that there are limits as to what to expect in terms of the existence of possible extraterrestrial forms as well to what can be achieved in experimental investigations on living systems despatched from Earth. This finding may appear to undermine currently held hopes that life will be found on nearby planets, but it is important to be aware that the presence of ice and water are by themselves not sufficient; there has to be an atmosphere which includes water vapour at a sufficiently high partial pressure for proteins to be active. A possible scenario in which there has been a history of adequate water vapour pressure which allowed organisms to prepare for a future desiccated state by forming suitable protective capsules cannot of course be ruled out.

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International Journal of Astrobiology
  • ISSN: 1473-5504
  • EISSN: 1475-3006
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