Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins

Date:
April 15, 2014
Source:
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Summary:
Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed into slime molds, frogs, elephants, humans and the rest of our planet's living kingdoms. How did it all begin?

A close-up of chimney structures created in the Icy Worlds lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Chimney structures like these can be found on the sea floor, surrounding warm, alkaline hydrothermal vents.
Credit: Image courtesy of NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed into slime molds, frogs, elephants, humans and the rest of our planet's living kingdoms. How did it all begin?

A new study from researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the Icy Worlds team at NASA's Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., describes how electrical energy naturally produced at the sea floor might have given rise to life. While the scientists had already proposed this hypothesis -- called "submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life" -- the new report assembles decades of field, laboratory and theoretical research into a grand, unified picture.

According to the findings, which also can be thought of as the "water world" theory, life may have begun inside warm, gentle springs on the sea floor, at a time long ago when Earth's oceans churned across the entire planet. This idea of hydrothermal vents as possible places for life's origins was first proposed in 1980 by other researchers, who found them on the sea floor near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Called "black smokers," those vents bubble with scalding hot, acidic fluids. In contrast, the vents in the new study -- first hypothesized by scientist Michael Russell of JPL in 1989 -- are gentler, cooler and percolate with alkaline fluids. One such towering complex of these alkaline vents was found serendipitously in the North Atlantic Ocean in 2000, and dubbed the Lost City.

"Life takes advantage of unbalanced states on the planet, which may have been the case billions of years ago at the alkaline hydrothermal vents," said Russell. "Life is the process that resolves these disequilibria." Russell is lead author of the new study, published in the April issue of the journal Astrobiology.

Other theories of life's origins describe ponds, or "soups," of chemicals, pockmarking Earth's battered, rocky surface. In some of those chemical soup models, lightning or ultraviolet light is thought to have fueled life in the ponds.

The water world theory from Russell and his team says that the warm, alkaline hydrothermal vents maintained an unbalanced state with respect to the surrounding ancient, acidic ocean -- one that could have provided so-called free energy to drive the emergence of life. In fact, the vents could have created two chemical imbalances. The first was a proton gradient, where protons -- which are hydrogen ions -- were concentrated more on the outside of the vent's chimneys, also called mineral membranes. The proton gradient could have been tapped for energy -- something our own bodies do all the time in cellular structures called mitochondria.

The second imbalance could have involved an electrical gradient between the hydrothermal fluids and the ocean. Billions of years ago, when Earth was young, its oceans were rich with carbon dioxide. When the carbon dioxide from the ocean and fuels from the vent -- hydrogen and methane -- met across the chimney wall, electrons may have been transferred. These reactions could have produced more complex carbon-containing, or organic compounds -- essential ingredients of life as we know it. Like proton gradients, electron transfer processes occur regularly in mitochondria.

"Within these vents, we have a geological system that already does one aspect of what life does," said Laurie Barge, second author of the study at JPL. "Life lives off proton gradients and the transfer of electrons."

As is the case with all advanced life forms, enzymes are the key to making chemical reactions happen. In our ancient oceans, minerals may have acted like enzymes, interacting with chemicals swimming around and driving reactions. In the water world theory, two different types of mineral "engines" might have lined the walls of the chimney structures.

"These mineral engines may be compared to what's in modern cars," said Russell.

"They make life 'go' like the car engines by consuming fuel and expelling exhaust. DNA and RNA, on the other hand, are more like the car's computers because they guide processes rather than make them happen."

One of the tiny engines is thought to have used a mineral known as green rust, allowing it to take advantage of the proton gradient to produce a phosphate-containing molecule that stores energy. The other engine is thought to have depended on a rare metal called molybdenum. This metal also is at work in our bodies, in a variety of enzymes. It assists with the transfer of two electrons at a time rather than the usual one, which is useful in driving certain key chemical reactions.

"We call molybdenum the Douglas Adams element," said Russell, explaining that the atomic number of molybdenum is 42, which also happens to be the answer to the "ultimate question of life, the universe and everything" in Adams' popular book, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Russell joked, "Forty-two may in fact be one answer to the ultimate question of life!"

The team's origins of life theory applies not just to Earth but also to other wet, rocky worlds.

"Michael Russell's theory originated 25 years ago and, in that time, JPL space missions have found strong evidence for liquid water oceans and rocky sea floors on Europa and Enceladus," said Barge. "We have learned much about the history of water on Mars, and soon we may find Earth-like planets around faraway stars. By testing this origin-of-life hypothesis in the lab at JPL, we may explain how life might have arisen on these other places in our solar system or beyond, and also get an idea of how to look for it."

For now, the ultimate question of whether the alkaline hydrothermal vents are the hatcheries of life remains unanswered. Russell says the necessary experiments are jaw-droppingly difficult to design and carry out, but decades later, these are problems he and his team are still happy to tackle.

The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Michael J. Russell, Laura M. Barge, Rohit Bhartia, Dylan Bocanegra, Paul J. Bracher, Elbert Branscomb, Richard Kidd, Shawn McGlynn, David H. Meier, Wolfgang Nitschke, Takazo Shibuya, Steve Vance, Lauren White, Isik Kanik. The Drive to Life on Wet and Icy Worlds. Astrobiology, 2014; 14 (4): 308 DOI: 10.1089/ast.2013.1110

Cite This Page:

NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 April 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140415195712.htm>.
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2014, April 15). New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140415195712.htm
NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "New study outlines 'water world' theory of life's origins." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140415195712.htm (accessed July 23, 2014).

Share This




More Fossils & Ruins News

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: MD Church Built in 1773 Ravaged by Fire

Raw: MD Church Built in 1773 Ravaged by Fire

AP (July 22, 2014) Authorities say a 241-year-old church on the National Register of Historic Places has been ravaged by fire in Maryland. (July 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Neil Armstrong's Post-Apollo 11 Life

Neil Armstrong's Post-Apollo 11 Life

Newsy (July 19, 2014) Neil Armstrong gained international fame after becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. But what was his life like after the historic trip? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
A Centuries' Old British Tradition Is Far from a Swan Song

A Centuries' Old British Tradition Is Far from a Swan Song

AFP (July 19, 2014) As if it weren't enough that the Queen is the Sovereign of the UK and 15 other Commonwealth realms, she is also the owner of all Britain's unmarked swans. Duration: 02:18 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Tooth Plaque Provides Insight Into Diets Of Ancient People

Tooth Plaque Provides Insight Into Diets Of Ancient People

Newsy (July 19, 2014) Research on plaque from ancient teeth shows that our prehistoric ancestor's had a detailed understanding of plants long before developing agriculture. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins