How Did Life On Earth Get Started? -
Unique Theory Reveals Clues Where Else It Might Exist

31 July, 2013

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How did life arise on Earth?

These questions has been asked for years, by both the scientific community and the general public.

Of course, there are many ideas about these fundamental questions.

Scientists are interested in understanding early life on Earth because if we ever hope to find life on other worlds - especially icy worlds with subsurface oceans such as Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's Enceladus - we need to know what chemical signatures to look for.

Early time in the Hadean epoch on Earth

A novel and potentially testable origin-of-life theory-first advanced more than 25 years ago by Michael Russell, a research scientist in Planetary Chemistry and Astrobiology at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory - was now further developed by Russell, Wolfgang Nitschke, a team leader at the National Center for Scientific Research in Marseille, France, and Elbert Branscomb, an affiliate faculty member at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Of course, one of the most powerful ways to address this question, and a worthy goal in its own right, is to try to understand how life came to be on this planet," said Branscomb, an affiliate faculty member at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"The answer should help us discover what is truly necessary to spark the fateful transition from the lifeless to the living, and thereby, under what conditions and with what likelihood it might happen elsewhere."

Russell’s hypothesis says that the transition to life was brought about by a peculiar geophysical and geochemical process called serpentinization—a process that played out on and just beneath the surface of Earth's ocean floor in the “Hadean” epoch more than 4 billion years ago.

This hypothesis also provides potential explanations for several aspects of how all life on Earth works, including, most notably, how it taps into and exploits sources of energy.

This process, quite oddly, involves constantly filling up and depleting a kind of chemical reservoir that is created by pushing a lot more protons onto one side of a membrane than the other—just like pumping water uphill to fill a lake behind a dam.

This image from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean shows a collection of limestone towers known as the "Lost City." The so-called "Lost City", a collection of large snow-white towers and hot water springs, lies at a depth of about 800 metres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Its limestone chimneys up to 60 metres high bear witness to the special geochemical environment that is home to an unusual ecosystem. A new study now strengthens the theory that the hydrocarbons occurring there have a chemical origin. Alkaline hydrothermal vents of this type are suggested to be the birthplace of the first living organisms on the ancient Earth. Image courtesy D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington

Then, mimicking how hydroelectric turbines are driven by water flowing downhill, these protons are only allowed to flow back “downhill” through the membrane by passing through a turbine-like molecular “generator,” which creates, instead of high-voltage electricity, a chemical fuel called ATP, the cell's “gasoline.” All cells then “burn” ATP in order to power their vital processes. The cells of air-breathing organisms, like us, “burn” ATP by ultimately converting oxygen to CO2.

Furthermore, while every bacterial cell has its own proton reservoir system, our bigger cells contain and cultivate herds of “ex-bacteria” (called mitochondria) that maintain their own reservoir, ATP-producing turbines, etc.—a trick of “agricultural domestication” at the cellular level that makes it not only possible for multi-cellular organisms to exist but to be huge, fast, and dangerous.

This “reservoir-mediated energy business” is not a minor undertaking of life, Branscomb notes.

Every day our bodies produce and consume their weight in ATP molecules. In seconds, each newly made ATP molecule is used.

In minutes, the body’s entire ATP energy reserve is consumed and regenerated.“That’s why you can’t stand to be without oxygen for more than a few minutes,” Branscomb said.

“We live on a thin, desperate edge to keep our metabolic motors running full blast. Yet in spite of this desperation, the process isn’t carried out by using our energy sources directly, but by using the indirect, proton reservoir method.

”The amazing answer, Russell's model suggests, is because that's how life got launched. “Before there was anything lifelike to take advantage of it, the geochemical process of serpentinization produced “for free” (along with much else of critical importance) two of the major components of this energy system: cell-like compartments surrounded by membranes and proton concentration differences on each side of the membranes,” Russell said.

Thus, according to Russell’s hypothesis, first life didn't have to make any of this stuff for itself. It was all a free gift of geochemistry on a wet, rocky, and tectonically-active planet.

“It's only later when life set out to take its act on the road that it had to figure out how to make its own membranes, pump protons uphill across these new membranes, tap into other sources of energy to do the pumping, etc.,” Branscomb said.

“But once hooked on the free stuff, the trans-membrane proton gradient in particular, life never broke the habit. And here we are, every living thing, still frantically pumping protons as if just staying alive depends on it—which it does."

The research is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society BPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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