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Life on Earth may have been created by volcanic lightning

A new study challenges the extraterrestrial origins of life, positing that life began on Earth itself. This research, led by the Sorbonne University in Paris, has uncovered that lightning strikes hitting volcanic eruptions across what is now known as Turkey, Peru, and Italy played a crucial role in producing extreme levels of nitrogen, thereby facilitating the birth of the earliest life forms. 

Nitrogen, a fundamental element for life on Earth, when combined with lightning, reacts with oxygen to form nitrogen oxide, which then gets released into the soil, creating a fertile ground for life to emerge and thrive.

Study significance

“Nitrogen (N) fixation is an essential process for life as it converts atmospheric dinitrogen into biologically assimilable forms,” wrote the study authors.  

“Experimental and theoretical studies have proposed that volcanic lightning could have contributed to N-fixation in early prebiotic environments on Earth but geological evidence are still lacking.” 

“For the first time, significant amounts of nitrate have been discovered in volcanic deposits from very large explosive eruptions.”

Atmospheric nitrate

The researchers analyzed samples from three ancient volcanic sites, which revealed that the substantial amounts of nitrates found were of atmospheric origin, suggesting that these essential life-giving elements were delivered by lightning, not derived from the volcanic eruptions themselves.

“When you look at the different possibilities, the most likely was volcanic lightning,” said study lead author Slimane Bekki, an expert in atmospheric sciences at the Sorbonne. “We know that you get a lot of lightning when you have a massive volcanic eruption.”

Volcanic lightning 

The phenomenon of volcanic lightning, which typically occurs at the eruption’s onset, was observed in two key areas: near the ground within ash clouds and higher up in the plume of volcanic smoke that reaches the stratosphere.

To investigate these phenomena, Bekki and his team conducted fieldwork in southern Peru, central Turkey, and off the coast of Naples, Italy, focusing on regions known for their ancient volcanic activities. Their research confirmed that the large quantities of nitrates detected in the soil were indeed atmospheric, brought about by lightning, rather than being directly emitted by the volcanoes.

Building blocks of life

“Indeed, nitrate produced by storm lightning all around the world are spread out on the Earth’s surface, while volcanic deposits are formed locally in a very short period of time and, according to our results, can contain large amounts of fixed N [nitrogen], a prerequisite for the development of life,” the authors wrote.

This groundbreaking research not only provides insight into the atmospheric processes that could have supported the emergence of life on Earth but also emphasizes the unique contributions of volcanic lightning to this complex puzzle.

“These findings provide geological support for a unique role played by subaerial explosive eruptions in high energy–demanding processes, which were essential in supplying building blocks for life during its emergence on Earth,” wrote the researchers.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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