Tag Archives: origin of life

A unifying idea for the origin of life

The nickel in stainless steel, the platinum in catalytic converters and the gold in jewellery, electronic circuits and Fort Knox should all be much harder to find in the Earth’s crust. Had the early Earth formed only by accretion and then the massive chemical resetting mechanism of the collision that produced the Moon all three would lie far beyond reach. Both formation events would have led to an extremely hot young Earth; indeed the second is believed to have left the outer Earth and Moon completely molten. All three are siderophile metals and have such a strong affinity for metallic iron that they would mostly have been dragged down to each body’s core as it formed in the early few hundred million years of the Earth-Moon system, leaving very much less in the mantle than rock analyses show. This emerged as a central theme at the Origin of Life Conference held in Atlanta GA, USA in October 2018. The idea stemmed from two papers published in 2015 that reported excessive amounts in basaltic material from both Earth and Moon of a tungsten isotope (182W) that forms when a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf), another strongly siderophile metal, decays. Hafnium too must have been strongly depleted in the outer parts of both bodies when their cores formed. The excesses are explained by substantial accretion of material rich in metallic iron to their outer layers shortly after Moon-formation, some being in large metallic asteroids able to penetrate to hundreds of kilometres. Hot iron is capable of removing oxygen from water vapour and other gases containing oxygen, thereby being oxidised. The counterpart would have been the release of massive amounts of hydrogen, carbon and other elements that form gases when combined with oxygen. The Earth’s atmosphere would have become highly reducing.

Had the atmosphere started out as an oxidising environment, as thought for many decades, it would have posed considerable difficulties for the generation at the surface of hydrocarbon compounds that are the sine qua non for the origin of life. That is why theories about abiogenesis (life formed from inorganic matter) hitherto have focussed on highly reducing environments such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents where hydrogen is produced by alteration of mantle minerals. The new idea revitalises Darwin’s original idea of life having originated in ‘a warm little pond’. How it has changed the game as regards the first step in life, the so-called ‘RNA World’ can be found in a detailed summary of the seemingly almost frenzied Origin of Life Conference (Service, R.F. 2019. Seeing the dawn. Science, v. 363, p. 116-119; DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6423.116).

Isotope geochemistry has also entered the mix in other regards, particularly that gleaned from tiny grains of the mineral zircon that survived intact from as little as 70 Ma after the Moon-forming and late-accretion events to end up (3 billion years ago) in the now famous Mount Narryer Quartzite of Western Australia. The oldest of these zircons (4.4 Ga) suggest that granitic rocks had formed the earliest vestiges of continental crust far back in the Hadean Eon: Only silica-rich magmas contain enough zirconium for zircon (ZrSiO4) to crystallise. Oxygen isotope studies of them suggest that at that very early date they had come into contact with liquid water, presumably at the Earth’s surface. That suggests that perhaps there were isolated islands of early continental materials; now vanished from the geological record. A 4.1 Ga zircon population revealed something more surprising: graphite flakes with carbon isotopes enriched in 12C that suggests the zircons may have incorporated carbon from living organisms.


A possible timeline for the origin of life during the Hadean Eon (Credit: Service, R.F. 2019, Science)

Such a suite of evidence has given organic chemists more environmental leeway to suggest a wealth of complex reactions at the Hadean surface that may have generated the early organic compounds needed as building blocks for RNA, such as aldehydes and sugars (specifically ribose that is part of both RNA and DNA), and the amino acids forming the A-C-G-U ‘letters’ of RNA, some catalysed by the now abundant siderophile metal nickel. One author seems gleefully to have resurrected Darwin’s ‘warm little pond’ by suggesting periodic exposure above sea level of abiogenic precursors to volcanic sulfur dioxide that could hasten some key reactions and create large masses of such precursors which rain would have channelled into ‘puddles and lakes’. The upshot is that the RNA World precursor to the self-replication conferred on subsequent life by DNA is speculated to have been around 4.35 Ga, 50 Ma after the Earth had cooled sufficiently to have surface water dotted with specks of continental material.

There are caveats in Robert Services summary, but the Atlanta conferences seems set to form a turning point in experimental palaeobiology studies.

Oceanic hydrothermal vents and the origin of life

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.

Hadean potentially fertile for life

The earliest incontrovertible signs of life on Earth are in the 3.48 billion-year-old Dresser Formation in the Pilbara craton of Western Australia, which take the form of carbon-coated, bubble-like structures in fine-grained silica sediments ascribed to a terrestrial hot-spring environment. In the same Formation are stromatolites that are knobbly, finely banded structures made of carbonates. By analogy with similar structures being produced today by bacterial mats in a variety of chemically stressed environments that are inhospitable for multicelled organisms that might know them away, stromatolites are taken to signify thriving, carbonate secreting bacteria. There are also streaks of carbon associated with wave ripples that may have been other types of biofilm. A less certain record of the presence of life are stromatolite-like features in metasediments from the Isua supracrustal belt of West Greenland, dated at around 3.8 Ga, which also contain graphite with carbon-isotopic signs that it formed from biogenic carbon. 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.

At present there is little chance of extending life’s record further back in time than four billion years because the Hadean is mainly represented by pre 4 Ga ages of zircon grains found in much younger sedimentary rocks – resistant relics of Hadean crustal erosion. The eastern shore of Hudson Bay does preserve a tiny (20 km2) patch of metamorphosed basaltic igneous rocks, known as the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt. Dated at 3.77 Ga by one method but 4.28 Ga by another, this could be Hadean. Like the Isua sequence that in Quebec also contains metasediments, including banded ironstones with associated iron-rich hydrothermal deposits. Silica from the vent system shows dramatically lifelike tubules. Yet the ambiguity in dating upsets any claims to genuine Hadean life. There has also been a physical stumbling block to the notion that life may have originated and thrived during the Hadean: the bombardment record.

English: An outcrop of metamorphosed volcanose...

Metamorphosed volcanosedimentary rocks from the Nuvvuagittuq supracrustal belt, Canada. Some of these rocks contain quite convincing examples of fossil cells. (credit: Wikipedia)

While oxygen-isotope data from 4.4 Ga zircons hints strongly at subsurface and perhaps surface water on Earth at that time, continued accretion of large planetesimals would have created the hellish conditions associated with the name of the first Eon in Earth’s history. Liquid water is essential for life to have formed, on top of a supply of the essential biological elements C, H, O, N, P and S. The sheer amount of interstellar dust that accompanied the Hadean impact record would have ensured fertile chemical conditions, but would the surface and near-surface of the early Earth have remained continually wet? Judging by the lunar surface and that of other bodies in the solar system, after the cataclysmic events that formed the Moon, many Hadean impacts on Earth were in the range of 100 to 1000 km across, with a Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB)that not only increased the intensity of projectile delivery but witnessed the most energetic single events such as those that created the lunar maria and probably far larger structures on Earth. The thermal energy, accompanied, by incandescent silicate vapour ejected from craters, may have evaporated oceans and even subsurface water with calamitous consequences for early life or prebiotic chemistry. Until 2017 no researchers had been able to model the energetic of the Hadean convincingly.

After assessing the projectile flux up to and through the LHB, and the consequent impact heating Bob Grimm and Simone Marchi of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado modelled the likely thermal evolution of the outer Earth through the Hadean. This allowed them to calculate the likely thermal gradients in the near-surface, the volumes of rock each event would have affected and the times taken for cooling after impacts (Grimm, R.E. & Marchi, S. 2018. Direct thermal effects of the Hadean bombardment did not limit early subsurface habitability. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 485, p. 1-9; doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2017.12.043). They found that subsurface ‘habitability’ would have grown continuously throughout the Hadean, even during the worst events of the LHB. Sterilizing Earth and thus destroying and interrupting any life processes could only have been achieved by ten times more projectiles arriving ten times more frequently over the 600 Ma history of the Hadean and LHB. Although surface water may have been evaporated by impact-flash heating and vaporized silicate ejecta, the subsurface would have been wet at least somewhere on the early Earth. Provided it either originated in or colonised surface sedimentary cover it would have been feasible for life to have survived the Hadean. However, nobody knows how long it would have taken for the necessary accumulation of prebiotic chemicals and to achieve the complex sequence of processes that lead to nucleic acids encapsulated in cells and thus self-replication and life itself.

Earliest hydrothermal vents and evidence for life


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 known as "the brothers".

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 …

You can find more on early life here


Signs of life in some of the oldest rocks

Vic McGregor (left) and Allen Nutman examine metasedimentary strata at Isua, West Greenland
For decades the record of tangible signs of life extended back to around 3.4 billion years ago, in the form of undulose, banded biofilms of calcite known as stromatolites preserved at North Pole in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. There have been attempts to use carbon-isotope data and those of other elements from older, unfossiliferous rocks to seek chemical signs of living processes that extracted carbon from the early seas. Repeatedly, claims have been made for such signatures being extracted from the 3.7 to 3.8 Ga Isua metasediments in West Greenland. But because this famous locality shows evidence of repeated metamorphism abiogenic formation of the chemical patterns cannot be ruled out. Isua has been literally crawled over since Vic McGregor of the Greenland Geological Survey became convinced in the 1960s that the metasediments could be the oldest rocks in the world, a view confirmed eventually by Stephen Moorbath and Noel Gale of Oxford University using Rb-Sr isotopic dating. There are slightly older rocks in Canada, which just break the 4 Ga barrier, but they were metamorphose at higher pressures and temperatures and are highly deformed. The Isua suprcrustals, despite deformation and metamorphism show far more diversity that geochemically can be linked to many kinds of sedimentary and volcanic rock types.


Two of the Isua addicts are Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Clark Friend formerly of Oxford Brookes University, UK, who have worked together on many aspects of the Isua rocks for decades. Finally, thanks to melt-back of old snow pack, they and colleagues have found stromatolites that push the origin of life as far back as it seems possible for geoscientists to reach (Nutman, A.P. et al. 2016. Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures. Nature, v. 537, published online 31 August 2016, doi:10.1038/nature). The trace fossils occur in a marble, formerly a limestone that retains intricate sedimentary structures, which show it to have been deposited in shallow water. The carbon and oxygen isotopes have probably been disturbed by metamorphism, and no signs of cell material remain for the same reason, but the shape is sufficiently distinct from those produced by purely sedimentary processes to suspect that they resulted from biofilm build-up. The fact that they are made of carbonates suggests that they may have been produced by cyanobacteria as modern stromatolites are.

isua strom

Stromatolite-like structures from a metasediment in the Isua area of West Greenland (credit Allen Nutman, University of Wollongong, Australia)

The age of the structures, about 3.7 Ga, is close to the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment (4. 1to 3.8 Ga) of the Solar System by errant asteroids and comets. So, if the physical evidence is what it seems to be, life emerged either very quickly after such an energetic episode or conditions at the end of the Hadean were not inimical to living processes or the prebiotic chemistry that led to them.

 You can find more on early life here

Allwood, A.C. 2016. Evidence of life in Earth’s oldest rocks. Nature, v. 537, published online 31 August 2016, doi:10.1038/nature19429