Newcastle University scientists are delving into the mysterious origins of life on Earth by investigating ancient hot springs. Their research, focused on the emergence of the first living systems from non-living geological materials over 3.5 billion years ago, has yielded a groundbreaking discovery.
The team successfully created organic molecules, including long-chain fatty acids – essential components of early cell membranes – shedding light on a crucial step in the formation of life on Earth. Fatty acids, vital for creating cell membranes, were believed to have played a role in life’s early stages, but their origin remained elusive.
The researchers propose that these molecules could have formed in hydrothermal vents, where hydrogen-rich fluids interacted with seawater containing carbon dioxide.
Replicating early Earth’s oceanic conditions in their laboratory, the scientists mixed hydrogen, bicarbonate, and iron-rich magnetite in a mild hydrothermal vent-like environment.
This led to the formation of crucial organic molecules, including fatty acids. The findings suggest that the interaction of hydrogen-rich fluids from alkaline hydrothermal vents with bicarbonate-rich waters on iron-based minerals might have precipitated the formation of early cell membranes.
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These cellular compartments were instrumental in isolating internal chemistry from the external environment, fostering life-sustaining reactions, and potentially serving as the cornerstone of life’s earliest moments, according to Dr. Graham Purvis, the study’s lead author.
Dr. Jon Telling, the principal investigator of the study and a reader in biogeochemistry at Newcastle University, highlights that this research may provide insights into the first step in how life originated on Earth.
The next phase of their investigation involves determining how the organic molecules initially attached to mineral surfaces can lift off to form spherical membrane-bounded cell-like compartments – the first potential protocells that led to the formation of cellular life.
The study also proposes that similar membrane-creating reactions might be occurring beneath the icy surfaces of moons in our solar system, hinting at the possibility of life’s origins in these distant worlds. This research not only enhances our understanding of life’s genesis on Earth but also offers potential insights into the existence of life elsewhere in the universe.