Harnessing energy as ion gradients across membranes is as universal as the genetic code. We leverage new insights into anaerobe metabolism to propose geochemical origins that account for the ubiquity of chemiosmotic coupling, and Na(+)/H(+) transporters in particular. Natural proton gradients acting across thin FeS walls within alkaline hydrothermal vents could drive carbon assimilation, leading to the emergence of protocells within vent pores. Protocell membranes that were initially leaky would eventually become less permeable, forcing cells dependent on natural H(+) gradients to pump Na(+) ions. Our hypothesis accounts for the Na(+)/H(+) promiscuity of bioenergetic proteins, as well as the deep divergence between bacteria and archaea.
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