The origin of life is one of the biggest unanswered questions in science, sparking curiosity and debate for centuries. This intricate mystery requires understanding numerous steps, and scientific exploration continuously adds new information and refines existing ideas. However, there are a variety of theories that have been suggesting a variety of processes responsible for it.
Now, scientists at Newcastle University have made a significant step towards understanding the origins of life on Earth. They ran an experiment simulating the environment of ancient underwater hot springs, hoping to discover how simple chemicals could have transformed into the first living organisms over 3.5 billion years ago.
According to a release, scientists at Newcastle University found that mixing hydrogen, bicarbonate, and iron-rich magnetite under conditions mimicking relatively mild hydrothermal vents results in the formation of a spectrum of organic molecules, most notably fatty acids stretching up to 18 carbon atoms in length.
Published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment, their findings potentially reveal how some key molecules needed to produce life are made from inorganic chemicals, which is essential to understanding a key step in how life formed on the Earth billions of years ago. Their results may provide a plausible genesis for the organic molecules that form ancient cell membranes, which were perhaps selectively chosen by early biochemical processes on primordial Earth.
The lead author of the study, Dr Graham Purvis, who conducted the study at Newcastle University and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Durham University, said that “Central to life’s inception are cellular compartments, crucial for isolating internal chemistry from the external environment. These compartments were instrumental in fostering life-sustaining reactions by concentrating chemicals and facilitating energy production, potentially serving as the cornerstone of life’s earliest moments.”
“The results suggest that the convergence of hydrogen-rich fluids from alkaline hydrothermal vents with bicarbonate-rich waters on iron-based minerals could have precipitated the rudimentary membranes of early cells at the very beginning of life. This process might have engendered a diversity of membrane types, some potentially serving as life’s cradle when life first started. Moreover, this transformative process might have contributed to the genesis of specific acids found in the elemental composition of meteorites.”
“We think that this research may provide the first step in understanding 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,” Principal Investigator Dr Jon Telling said.
This research not only sheds light on Earth’s early life, but also raises the tantalizing possibility that similar processes could be occurring in the frozen seas of distant moons. This opens up the exciting possibility that life elsewhere in our solar system may have arisen through analogous pathways.