Multi-scale metabolism: from the origin of life to microbial ecology
Goldford, Joshua Elliot
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Metabolism is a key attribute of life on Earth at multiple spatial and temporal scales, involved in processes ranging from cellular reproduction to biogeochemical cycles. While metabolic network modeling approaches have enabled significant progress at the cellular-scale, extending these techniques to address questions at both the ecosystem and planetary-scales remains highly unexplored. In this thesis, I integrate various multi-scale metabolic network modeling approaches to address key questions with regard to both the long-term evolution of metabolism in the biosphere and the metabolic processes that take place in complex microbial communities. The first portion of my thesis work, focused on the evolution of ancient metabolic networks, attempts to model the emergence of ecosystem-level metabolism from simple geochemical precursors. By integrating network-based algorithms, physiochemical constraints, and geochemical estimates of ancient Earth, I explored whether a complex metabolic network could have emerged without phosphate, a key molecular component in modern-day living systems, known to be poorly available at the onset of life. We found that phosphate may have not been essential in early living systems, and that thioesters may have been the primitive energy currency in ancient metabolic networks. By generalizing this approach to explore the scope of geochemical scenarios that could have given rise to living systems, I found that other key biomolecules, including fixed nitrogen, may have not been required at the earliest stages in biochemical evolution. The second portion of my thesis deals with a different aspect of ecosystem-level metabolism, namely the role of metabolism in shaping the structure of microbial communities. I studied the relationship between metabolism and microbial community assembly using microbial communities grown in synthetic laboratory environments. We found that a generalized statistical consumer-resource model recapitulates the emergent phenomena observed in these experiments. Future work could seek to better clarify the connection between the fundamental rules that led to life’s emergence over 4 billion years ago and the laws that shape microbial ecosystems today. An ecosystems-level metabolic perspective may aid in our understanding of both the emergence and maintenance of the biosphere.
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