Ancient hot springs may have held the key to the origin of life on Earth

Scientists have looked to ancient hot springs in a recent study from Newcastle University in an attempt to solve the riddles surrounding the origins of life on Earth more than 3.5 billion years ago.

The transition from inorganic materials to living systems was investigated by the study team under the direction of Dr. Graham Purvis, who is currently a Postdoctoral study Associate at Durham University.

The emergence of life and fatty acids

They combined hydrogen, bicarbonate, and iron-rich magnetite by mimicking the circumstances of mild hydrothermal vents.

Organic compounds with up to 18 carbon atoms in fatty acids were among the variety of molecules that this experiment produced.

Understanding how some essential molecules required for life could have developed from inorganic substances is greatly aided by these discoveries.

To piece together the intricate mystery of the origins of life on Earth, this knowledge is essential.

Cell-like compartments are known to naturally develop in water by fatty acids, which are long organic molecules containing areas that repel and attract water.

It is thought that the creation of the first cell membranes required the presence of these molecules.

Still up for discussion, though, is where these fatty acids came from in the early phases of life. A theory is that they originated in hydrothermal vents, which are places where hot, hydrogen-rich fluids and CO2-rich saltwater came into contact.

Older hot springs and organic compounds

The research team mimicked important elements of the early Earth’s seas’ chemical environment in their lab.

They found that the creation of molecules required for the earliest cell membranes occurred when hot, hydrogen-rich fluids were mixed with carbon dioxide-rich water in the presence of early Earth’s iron-based minerals.

Dr. Purvis went into further detail about the relevance of their discoveries, highlighting the role that cellular compartments played in the beginning of life.

“Central to life’s inception are cellular compartments, crucial for isolating internal chemistry from the external environment,” Dr. Purvis said.

These compartments, which were essential for isolating internal chemistry from the outside world, most certainly had a major influence on the development of energy production and life-sustaining processes.

He proposed that the creation of early cell membranes on iron-based minerals may have resulted from the interaction of hydrogen-rich fluids from alkaline hydrothermal vents with bicarbonate-rich seas, acting as the possible birthplace of life.

Consequences for life beyond Earth

The study’s importance for comprehending the origins of life were emphasized by Principal Investigator Dr. Jon Telling, Reader in Biogeochemistry at the School of Natural Environmental Sciences, who contributed to the conversation.

Dr. Telling clarified that, “We think that this research may provide the first step in how life originated on our planet. Research in our laboratory now continues on determining the second key step; how these organic molecules which are initially ‘stuck’ to the mineral surfaces can lift off to form spherical membrane-bounded cell-like compartments; the first potential ‘protocells’ that went on to form the first cellular life.” 

The group is currently concentrating on how these organic molecules, which at first attached themselves to mineral surfaces, may have created spherical, membrane-bounded cell-like compartments—possibly the earliest “protocells.”

Furthermore, the finding presents fascinating opportunities that extend beyond Earth. The group hypothesizes that comparable membrane-forming processes might be taking place beneath the ice moon surfaces in our solar system, pointing to potential alternate sources of life in these far-off worlds.

In conclusion, this study advances our knowledge of the origins of life on Earth as well as the possible locations and processes of life’s emergence elsewhere in the universe.