On the Origin of Heterotrophy

Peter Schönheit, Wolfgang Buckel, William F. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

80 Citations (Scopus)


The theory of autotrophic origins of life posits that the first cells on Earth satisfied their carbon needs from CO2. At hydrothermal vents, spontaneous synthesis of methane via serpentinization links an energy metabolic reaction with a geochemical homologue. If the first cells were autotrophs, how did the first heterotrophs arise, and what was their substrate? We propose that cell mass roughly similar to the composition of Escherichia coli was the substrate for the first chemoorganoheterotrophs. Amino acid fermentations, pathways typical of anaerobic clostridia and common among anaerobic archaea, in addition to clostridial type purine fermentations, might have been the first forms of heterotrophic carbon and energy metabolism. Ribose was probably the first abundant sugar, and the archaeal type III RubisCO pathway of nucleoside monophosphate conversion to 3-phosphoglycerate might be a relic of ancient heterotrophy. Participation of chemiosmotic coupling and flavin-based electron bifurcation - a soluble energy coupling process - in clostridial amino acid and purine fermentations is consistent with an autotrophic origin of both metabolism and heterotrophy, as is the involvement of S0 as an electron acceptor in the facilitated fermentations of anaerobic heterotrophic archaea.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-25
Number of pages14
JournalTrends in Microbiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016


  • Amino acid fermentations
  • Archaeal type III RubisCO
  • Autotrophic origins
  • Hydrothermal vents
  • Purine fermentations


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