Origin of life on Earth may have come from underwater electric chimneys

6 Aug 2015

The artificial underwater chimney grown in the NASA laboratory as part of the experiment. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

An interesting discovery by NASA researchers appears to suggest that the origin of life on Earth could be the result of conductive chimneys emitting electrons transferred from the ocean floor.

Having posed the question as to what may have been the origin of life on Earth, researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have now published a study that has found some rather surprising electric experiments.

The researchers grew tiny organic chimneys underwater in a lab – similar to the ones that grow naturally on the ocean floor – and, by placing a light bulb nearby, were able to power them.

The original concept for the study was to see what part these naturally-occurring chimneys have in the ecosystem of oceans, with the chimneys ranging in size from just a few centimetres to tens of metres.

A theory previously put forward for the origin of life on Earth suggested that warm, alkaline chimneys – rather than their acidic cousins – played a part in the creation of life.

Origin of life on Earth  chimneys

This image from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean shows a collection of limestone towers known as the Lost City. Image via D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington

Replicated on other planets?

Typically a porous structure, these chimneys could have established electrical and proton gradients across the thin mineral membranes that separate their compartments.

Such gradients from the volcanic subsurface insert critical life processes that generate energy and organic compounds.

Replicating this in the lab was the first time that four connected artificial alkaline vents had been shown to produce enough electricity that could power an LED light bulb.

“Life doesn’t want to get electrocuted, but needs just the right amount of electricity,” said Michael Russell of JPL, a co-author of the study. “This new experiment confirms what that amount of electricity is — just under a volt.”

The team will now look to replicate the same experiment, but with different materials, to see if they can find similar results with minerals found on planets and moons in our solar system, including Europa and Mars.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic