Francis Crick, responsible for discovering, along with James Watson, the double-helix structure of DNA, once described the origin of life as ‘almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going’. Now, by creating protocells in hot, alkaline seawater, an undaunted University College London-led research team has added to evidence that the origin of life could have been in deep-sea hydrothermal vents rather than shallow pools. Some of the world’s oldest fossils discovered originated in such underwater vents.
“In science fiction, there is a lot of effort put into searching for signs of life like plants, animals and organisms that look like us. But there is a higher probability that alien life will be at the microscopic level,” says Rutgers University geochemist, Nathan Yee, co-investigator at the NASA-funded ENIGMA project that’s researching how proteins, “sophisticated nanomachines,” evolved to create life on earth. “That fact is so much more interesting when you consider what the earliest lifeforms on Earth were capable of doing.”
“Our overall message is, if you think the origin of life required fixed nitrogen, as many people do, then it’s tough to have the origin of life happen in the ocean,” says Sukrit Ranjan at MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), part of a research team that concluded that early Earth’s nitrogen-rich ponds may have provided a more suitable environment for generating the first life forms, more so than oceans.
“We’ve shown that in geological conditions similar to early Earth, and maybe to other planets, we can form amino acids and alpha hydroxy acids from a simple reaction under mild conditions that would have existed on the seafloor,” said NASA astrobiologist Laurie Barge.