Simulating Early Ocean Vents Shows Life's Building Blocks Form Under Pressure

By mimicking rocky seafloor chimneys in the lab, scientists have produced new evidence that these features could have provided the right ingredients to kick-start life.

Where did life first form on Earth? Some scientists think it could have been around hydrothermal vents that may have existed at the bottom of the ocean 4.5 billion years ago. In a new paper in the journal Astrobiology, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory describe how they mimicked possible ancient undersea environments with a complex experimental setup. They showed that under extreme pressure, fluid from these ancient seafloor cracks mixed with ocean water could have reacted with minerals from the hydrothermal vents to produce organic molecules – the building blocks that compose nearly all life on Earth.

In particular, the research lays important groundwork for in-depth studies of such ocean worlds as Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which are both thought to have liquid-water oceans buried beneath thick icy crusts and may host hydrothermal activity similar to what’s being simulated at JPL. This area of research belongs to a field of study known as astrobiology, and the work was done by the JPL Icy Worlds team as part of the former NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Some scientists think the story of life on Earth may have started around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory mimicked those ancient undersea environments with a complex experimental setup.

Under the Ancient Sea

To simulate conditions that might have existed on the ocean floor of a newly formed Earth, before the sea teemed with life, then-graduate student Lauren White and colleagues conducted an experiment that brought together three key ingredients: hydrogen-rich water, like the kind that could have flowed out from beneath the seafloor

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