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Origin of life on Earth may have been found in ancient hot springs

In a recent study conducted by Newcastle University, scientists have turned to ancient hot springs as a key to unlocking the mysteries of life’s origins on Earth over 3.5 billion years ago.

The research team, led by Dr. Graham Purvis, now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Durham University, explored the transition from inorganic materials to living systems.

Fatty acids and the origin of life

By simulating conditions akin to mild hydrothermal vents, they mixed hydrogen, bicarbonate, and iron-rich magnetite.

This experiment yielded a range of organic molecules, including fatty acids containing up to 18 carbon atoms.

These findings are pivotal in understanding how certain crucial molecules necessary for life could have formed from inorganic chemicals.

This understanding is vital to piecing together the complex puzzle of life’s beginnings on our planet.

Fatty acids, long organic molecules with both water-attracting and repelling regions, are known to naturally form cell-like compartments in water.

These molecules are believed to have been integral to the formation of the first cell membranes.

However, the source of these fatty acids during the early stages of life has remained a subject of debate. One hypothesis posits their origin in hydrothermal vents, where hot, hydrogen-rich fluids and CO2-rich seawater interacted.

Organic molecules and ancient hot springs

In their laboratory, the research group replicated key aspects of the chemical environment of early Earth’s oceans.

They discovered that mixing hot hydrogen-rich fluids with carbon dioxide-rich water in the presence of early Earth’s iron-based minerals led to the formation of molecules needed for the earliest cell membranes.

Dr. Purvis elaborated on the significance of their findings, emphasizing the importance of cellular compartments in life’s inception.

“Central to life’s inception are cellular compartments, crucial for isolating internal chemistry from the external environment,” Dr. Purvis explained.

These compartments, crucial for separating internal chemistry from the external environment, likely played a pivotal role in fostering life-sustaining reactions and energy production.

He suggested that the interaction of hydrogen-rich fluids from alkaline hydrothermal vents with bicarbonate-rich waters on iron-based minerals could have led to the formation of early cell membranes, potentially serving as the cradle of life.

Implications for extraterrestrial life

Adding to the discussion, Principal Investigator Dr. Jon Telling, Reader in Biogeochemistry at the School of Natural Environmental Sciences, highlighted the research’s implications for understanding life’s origins.

“We think that this research may provide the first step in how life originated on our planet. Research in our laboratory now continues on determining the second key step; how these organic molecules which are initially ‘stuck’ to the mineral surfaces can lift off to form spherical membrane-bounded cell-like compartments; the first potential ‘protocells’ that went on to form the first cellular life,” Dr. Telling elucidated.

The team is now focusing on how these organic molecules, initially adhering to mineral surfaces, might have formed spherical membrane-bounded cell-like compartments, potentially the first ‘protocells.’

Moreover, the research opens intriguing possibilities beyond our planet. The team speculates that similar membrane-creating reactions could be occurring under the icy surfaces of moons in our solar system, hinting at alternative origins of life in these distant realms.

In summary, this research sheds light on the genesis of life on Earth while also expanding our understanding of where and how life could potentially arise elsewhere in the cosmos.

The full study was published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.


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