Origins of Life: Undersea Stone May Have Started It All

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Deep-Sea 'White Smokers'

In 1993, Michael Russell of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory postulated that the sea floor probably has other vents that are not nearly as hot as the black smokers, and would therefore be more conducive to generating life. Seven years later, "white smokers" were discovered on serpentine rocks deep in the Atlantic Ocean.

The white smokers had it all -- not so hot that any organic substances would be destroyed, and having an abundance of chemicals that could form the nucleic acids favorable for life. And equally important, these miniature volcanoes had plenty of energy.

Serpentine also supplied the answer to a question scientists have been raising for decades. It's sort of a chicken and egg question. Which came first, a living cell, or a membrane to house the cell? It's hard to see how a membrane could form before the living cell, but how does the cell hold itself together until it can form a membrane?

Serpentine is riddled with tiny pores, in which alkaline fluids interact with acidic seawater -- another source of energy -- and these pores probably serve as a natural home for the acids that are necessary for the formation of RNA, essential for all forms of known life.

"Organic matter will collect on the sides of these micropores," Sleep said, so the pores themselves could serve as a cell membrane until the cell makes its own membrane and is ready to leave the incubator. And leave it must, because the chimneys collapse in a few years, and that's a good thing.

"Life needs to disperse," says Sleep's paper, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

"It will just proliferate and multiply and inhabit every reachable habitat on the earth that it can live in," Sleep added in the interview.

According to this theory, it wasn't necessary for life to travel to this earth from Mars or outer space, as NASA has suggested. It could have originated here, and possibly throughout the universe.

"Life originates quickly, so that's a hint that it originates easily," Sleep said, noting that it didn't take long after the earth cooled and became hospitable for life that life did, indeed, appear.

It's an interesting theory, and fascinating research, but when will we know if it's correct?

Maybe never.

"The geological record is gone, unless we get darn lucky," Sleep said.

We can't recreate the Earth as it existed nearly four billion years ago. Proving this theory will be very difficult. But maybe somewhere there's a rock, or a crystal, with clues that, for the moment, we know nothing about. That would be very, very lucky.

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