A range of indirect evidence has been used to suggest that life originated deep in the oceans around hydrothermal vents, such as signs of early organic matter in association with Archaean pillow lavas. One particularly persuasive observation is that a number of proteins and other cell chemicals are constructed around metal sulfide groups. Such sulfides are common around hydrothermal ‘smokers’ associated with oceanic rift systems. Moreover, Fischer-Tropsch reactions between carbon monoxide and hydrogen produce quite complex hydrocarbon molecules under laboratory conditions. Such hydrogenation of a carbon-bearing gas requires a catalyst, a commonly used one being chromium oxide (see Abiotic formation of hydrocarbons by oceanic hydrothermal circulation May 2004). It also turns out that fluids emitted by sea-floor hydrothermal systems are sometimes rich in free hydrogen, formed by the breakdown of olivine in ultramafic rocks to form hydroxylated minerals such as serpentine and talc. The fact that chromium is abundant in ultramafic rocks, in the form of its oxide chromite, elevates the possibility that Fischer-Tropsch reactions may have been a crucial part of the life-forming process on the early Earth. What is needed is evidence that such reactions do occur in natural settings.
A white carbonate mound forming at the Lost City hydrothermal vent field on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (Credit: Baross 2018)
One site on the mid-Atlantic ridge spreading centre, the Lost City vent field, operates because of serpentinisation of peridotites exposed on the ocean floor, to form carbonate-rich plumes and rocky towers; ‘white smokers’. So that is an obvious place to test the abiotic theory for the origin of life. Past analyses of the vents have yielded a whole range of organic molecules, including alkanes, formates, acetates and pyruvates, that are possible precursors for such a natural process. Revisiting Lost City with advanced analytical techniques has taken the quest a major step forward (Ménez, B. et al. 2018. Abiotic synthesis of amino acids in the recesses of the oceanic lithosphere. Nature, advance online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0684-z). The researchers from France and Kazakhstan focused on rock drilled from 170 m below the vent system, probably beyond the influence of surface contamination from living organisms. Using several methods they detected the nitrogen-containing amino acid tryptophan, and that alone. Had they detected other amino acids their exciting result would have been severely tempered by the possibility of surface organic contamination. The formation of tryptophan implies that its abiotic formation had to involve the reduction of elemental nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3). Bénédicte Ménez and colleagues suggest that the iron-rich clay saponite, which is a common product of serpentine alteration at low temperatures, may have catalysed such reduction and amino-acid synthesis through Friedel–Crafts reactions. Fascinating as this discovery may be, it is just a step towards confirming life’s abiogenesis. It also permits speculation that similar evidence may be found elsewhere in the Solar System on rocky bodies, such as the moons Enceladus and Europa that orbit Saturn and Jupiter respectively. That is, if the rock base of hydrothermal systems thought to occur there can be reached.
Related article: Baross, J.A. 2018. The rocky road to biomolecules. Nature, v. 564, p. 42-43; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-018-07262-8.
That seawater circulates through the axial regions of rifts associated with sea-floor spreading has been known since well before the acceptance of plate tectonics. The idea stems from the discovery in 1949 of brines with a temperature of 60°C on the central floor of the Red Sea, which in the early 60s turned out to be anomalously metal-rich as well. Advanced submersibles that can withstand the high pressures at great depth a decade later produced images of swirling clouds of sediment from large sea-floor springs, first on the Galapagos rift and subsequently on many others. The first shots were of dark, turbulent clouds, prompting the term ‘black smoker’ for such hydrothermal vents and it turns out that others produce light-coloured clouds – ‘white smokers’. Sampling revealed that the sediments in black smokers were in fact fine-grained precipitates of metallic sulfides, whereas those forming white smokers were sulfates, carbonates and oxides of barium calcium and silicon also precipitated from solute-rich brines produced by partial dissolution of ocean floor through which they had passes.
A black smoker with associated organism. (credit: Wikipedia)
Excitement grew when hydrothermal vents were shown to have complex animal ecosystems completely new to science. A variety of chemical evidence, most importantly the common presence of proteins and other cell chemicals built around metal sulfide groups in most living organisms, prompted the idea that hydrothermal vents may have hosted the origins of life on Earth. Many fossil vent systems also contain fossils; macrofossils in the Phanerozoic and microbial ones from the Precambrian. But tangible signs of life, in the form of mats ascribed to bacteria or archaea holding together fine-grained sediments, go back no further than 3830 Ma in the Isua area of SW Greenland. Purely geochemical evidence that carbonaceous compounds may have formed in living systems are ambiguous since quite complex hydrocarbons can be synthesised abiogenically by Fischer-Tropsch reactions between carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Signs of deep sea hydrothermal activity are common in any geological terrain containing basalt lavas with the characteristic pillows indicating extrusion beneath water. So to trace life’s origins all that is needed to trigger the interest of palaeobiologists are the oldest known pillow lavas. Until quite recently, that meant the Isua volcano-sedimentary association, but heating, high pressures and very strong deformation affected those rocks when they were metamorphosed half a billion years after they were formed; a cause for skepticism by some geoscientists.
The primacy of Isua metavolcanic rocks has been challenged by more extensive metamorphosed basalts in the Nuvvuagittuk area in Quebec on the east side of Hudson Bay, Canada. They contain hydrothermal ironstones associated with pillowed basalts that are cut by more silica-rich intrusive igneous rocks dated between 3750 and 3775 Ma. That might place the age of basalt volcanism and the hydrothermal systems in the same ball park as those of Isua, but intriguingly the basalts’ 146Sm-142Nd systematics suggest a possible age of magma separation from the mantle of 4280 Ma (this age is currently disputed as it clashes with U-Pb dates for zircon grains extracted from the metabasalts around the same as the age at Isua). Nonetheless, some parts of the Nuvvuagittuk sequence are barely deformed and show only low-grade metamorphism, and they contain iron- and silicon-rich hot spring deposits (Dodd, M.S. et al. 2017. Evidence for early life in Earth’s oldest hydrothermal vent precipitates. Nature, v. 543, p. 60-64; doi:10.1038/nature21377). As at Isua, the ironstones contain graphite whose carbon isotope proportions have an ambiguous sign of having formed by living or abiotic processes. It is the light deformation and low metamorphism of the rocks that gives them an edge as regards being hosts to tangible signs of life. Extremely delicate rosettes and blades of calcium carbonate and phosphate, likely formed during deposition, remain intact. These signs of stasis are in direct contact with features that are almost identical to minute tubes and filaments formed in modern vents by iron-oxidising bacteria. All that is missing are clear signs of bacterial cells. Ambiguities in the dating of the basalt host rocks do not allow the authors claims that their signs of life are significantly older than those at Isua, but their biotic origins are less open to question. Neither offer definitive proof of life, despite widespread claims by media science correspondents, some of whom tend metaphorically to ‘run amok ‘ when the phrase ‘ancient life’ appears; in this case attempting to link the paper with life on Mars …
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