Did Life Spring from Undersea Vents?

Japanese researchers report they have managed to re-create the conditions from which life itself may have begun.

Koichiro Matsuno, at the Nagaoka University of Technology, about 170 miles northwest of Tokyo, said he and his colleagues had been able to produce some of the elementary building blocks of which proteins, essential to life, are formed.

In a possible major breakthrough in the never-ending debate about how life started, the team led by Matsuno built an artificial system simulating the environment at undersea thermal vents, where water heated deep below erupts through the seabed into cooler ocean water.

“Many people feel that the hydrothermal vent was where life may have begun, but what was needed was to make a convincing story,” Matsuno told Reuters.

Hot, Cold and Back Again

Writing in the journal Science, Matsuno and his team explained how they simulated a process called “polymerization,” in which complex molecules — in this case oligopeptides, one of the elements that make up protein — are formed from simpler amino acids.

This process was likely to be repeated numerous times, possibly aided “by heating in dry and wet conditions, day-and-night cycles, tidal waves, [and] dry-wet conditions in lagoons,” the authors wrote.

But Matsuno was most interested in the idea of the hydrothermal vent.

“I asked myself where life originated and said, ‘Go down to the hydrothermal vents in the [primordial] sea,’” he recounted.

There, chemical products synthesized in hot vents could re-enter the vents after being quenched in the surrounding cold water and undergo further reactions.

What Matsuno and his team did that was new was to build a flow reactor that emphasized this cycle of heat and cold, then added amino acid glycine, which formed into more complex “oligopeptide” molecules in a stepwise process.

Self-Deprecating Style

Key to the process was the addition of copper ions, which allowed the molecules to grow, Matsuno said.

“Suppose you make a very fancy soup. The best way to preserve it is to put it into the freezer right away. But then if you’d like to add a few more nice things, you heat it, add them, then transfer it to the freezer again,” he said.

“Through this process, what you originally had in your pan grows into something much more complex. And that’s the story here.”

A native of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido and graduate of the prestigious Tokyo University, Matsuno, 58, said he has wrestled with questions on the origin of life — “the most fantastic area” — for more than three decades, since around the time he received his doctorate in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But inspiration for his current research work at the university came only about two years ago.

“I did a lot of stupid things and failures. But finally I came up with this experimental design — perhaps because I’d failed at everything else,” he said.

Sidestepping questions on religion, Matsuno said he is “a typical Japanese” — a non-practitioner in daily life — “although I will call a Buddhist priest if needed to hold a funeral.”

Asked if he was pleased to reach a successful conclusion to his research, he said no.

“At this point, I am not so happy. Because my main agenda is to find a good problem to solve.”

“My greatest concern is to find the next applicable problem. And I don’t know if I can find a good one — not too simple, but not too hard — so I can solve it before I retire.”