Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw’s®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 15 No. 6 • October 2012

Special Feature —The Story of Hydrogen

On the First Day, God Created Hydrogen

The first element to come out of the Big Bang, emerging within a short time out of the very hot and dense plasma, was hydrogen followed very shortly thereafter by helium (by hydrogen atoms colliding and fusing into helium) and lithium. Although the earliest events are surrounded by speculation, the current model is that “[a]pproximately 10-37 seconds into the expansion, a phase transition caused a cosmic inflation, during which the Universe grew exponentially.”1 “A few minutes into the expansion, when the temperature was about a billion (one thousand million; 109; SI prefix giga-) kelvin and the density was about that of air, neutrons combined with protons to form the Universe’s deuterium and helium nuclei in a process called Big Bang nucleosynthesis. Most protons remained uncombined as hydrogen nuclei.”1 “After about 379,000 years the electrons and nuclei combined into atoms (mostly hydrogen); hence, the radiation decoupled from matter and continued through space largely unimpeded. This relic radiation is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation.”1 [references provided in the text have been deleted here]

A very long period of time passed …

The First Living Organism Arrives

According to a proposed hypothesis,2 eukaryotic cells* have developed through the symbiotic association of a hydrogen-dependent archaebacterium (the host) with a eubacterium (the symbiont) that was able to respire oxygen but generated molecular hydrogen as a waste product.

*Eukaryote, a cell containing a membrane-bound nucleus with chromosomes of DNA, RNA, and proteins; also containing mitochondria, and in photosynthetic species, plastids are found. The superkingdom Eukaryotae includes Protoctista, Fungi, Plantae, and Animalia. (from Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 25th edition).

That hypothetical picture of the first living cells on the primitive Earth looks a lot like what is going on right now in your lower digestive tract, as the microbiota residing there include symbiotic relationships between certain bacteria that ferment indigestible (to us) carbohydrates, producing hydrogen and some other bacteria that consume hydrogen, using it as an energy source and producing methane.2b-2c The rest of the hydrogen, and there can be quite a bit of it, circulates throughout your tissues, eventually being excreted mostly by exhalation through the lungs but also some via the flatus. (Flatus, n. —from the latin, “a blowing.”)

The authors of the hypothesis paper2 ask whether associations between methanogens and hydrogen-producing organisms are observable today. They answer: “Yes, abundantly so. Anaerobic syntrophy between methanogens and hydrogen-producing organisms has been known for many years and has been studied in some detail. It is observed in marine sediments, deep in the Earth’s crust, and fascinating examples are known in which endosymbiotic methanogens cling not to free-living eubacteria, but hydrogenosomes themselves in the cytosol of amitochondriate protists.” [paper citations were deleted here] Interestingly, the researchers did not mention the association between methanogens and hydrogen-producing bacteria in the human colon. Perhaps they were not aware of it. Their hypothesis paper was published in 1998 and, although the production of hydrogen in the lower digestive tract had been known for quite some time prior to that,3 there was still little awareness of the potential health effects of endogenous hydrogen production.

They concluded their paper optimistically “Hydrogen is the key. It is the bond that forges eukaryotes out of prokaryotes.”2 This might be a good time for these scientists to return to their hypothesis, looking at the colon as a site where these possibly VERY ancient interactions between the hydrogen-generating and the hydrogen-using bacteria are currently taking place practically under our noses and where they can be easily observed and experimentally manipulated. Gene microarrays could be used to investigate evolutionary pathways that have led to this symbiosis.

The Discovery of the Hydrogenosomes

The first paper on the discovery of the organelles in eukaryote cells that manufactured hydrogen was published in 1973.4 The discovery of hydrogenosomes was beautifully described in a 2007 book which we recently bought: William F. Martin and Miklos Muller, Editors, Origin of Mitochondria and Hydrogenosomes (Springer, 2007) “Work from many laboratories has contributed towards formulating the current hypothesis that hydrogenosomes and mitosomes, their even more reduced cousins, share common ancestry with mitochondria … Hydrogenosomes, mitosomes, and mitochondria are evolutionary homologues in the sense meant by Charles Darwin. Their shared similarities, for example their common mechanisms of protein import and their double membrane, can be explained by common ancestry, and their differences by descent with modification under contrasting lifestyles. The hypothesis that mitochondria, mitosomes and hydrogenosomes are homologous predicts that, as the organelles are studied more deeply, additional shared features will be revealed.”(quoted from the Foreword to the book)

Perhaps nobody would much care about the origin of hydrogenosomes (other than those with very high levels of curiosity) except that now that there are clearly organisms dwelling within our lower digestive tracts that make hydrogen and, hence, have hydrogenosomes, the matter of hydrogenosomes has become a matter of understanding a functional part of ourselves.

The first chapter of the book, The Road to Hydrogenosomes was written by Miklos Muller, a scientist who co-discovered hydrogenosomes. He describes the offer made to him (“the opportunity of my life”) in 1964 by Christian de Duve, who received the Nobel Prize in 1974 for the discovery of lysosomes and peroxisomes, to join his lab at the Rockefeller Institute to study these organelles. As a result of these studies and those he did elsewhere, Muller became interested in the distribution of peroxisomes, “looking for new organisms to explore. Little did I suspect that this quest would lead to a ‘novel’ organelle, the hydrogenosome.” Dr. Muller turned to the study of the cattle pathogen Tritrichomonas foetus because this organism respired by a nonmitochondrial process. Eventually, he and his colleague Lindmark published a paper4 in The Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1973 in which they reported that “[t]hese findings underscore the unique nature of the microbody-like particles of T. foetus. In contrast to mitochondria or peroxisomes, in which electron transfer is directed toward molecular oxygen, they utilize protons as terminal electron acceptors and thus produce molecular hydrogen. We propose the term ‘hydrogenosome’ to designate this new biochemically defined subcellular entity.” Your bowels are full of tiny single celled creatures containing these hydrogenosomes! Dr. Muller notes that the book of which his chapter is a part well presents the work that led to “a consistent picture of the until recently unsuspected diversity of mitochondria and firmly placed the trichomonad hydrogenosomes in the big family of organelles derived from the ancestral ‘protomitochondrion.’” He closes with a note of good humor, probably reflecting on a long period of disbelief by other scientists: “Finally they can be seriously considered even in polite company.”

Yes, indeed, unless you fart!


1. “Big Bang,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bang)
2. Martin & Muller. The hydrogen hypothesis for the first eukaryote. Nature 392:37-41 (1998).
2b,2c. Behall et al. Breath hydrogen and methane expiration in men and women after oat extract consumption,” J Nutr 128:79-84 (1998); Marthinsen and Fleming. Excretion of breath and flatus gases by humans consuming high-fiber diets. J Nutr 112:1133-43 (1982).
3. Strocchi and Levitt. Maintaining intestinal H2 balance: credit the colonic bacteria. Gastroenterology 102(4):1424-6 (1992).
4. Lindmark and Muller. Hydrogenosome, a cytoplasmic organelle of the anaerobic flagellate, Tritrichomonas foetus, and its role in pyruvate metabolism. J Biol Chem 248:7724-8 (1973).

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