The quest to discover the origins of life has taken a significant step forward with new research. The study by the University of Rochester and the University of Colorado Boulder revealed key information about the conditions and chemical pathways that could have supported the emergence of life on Earth.
While researchers still do not know exactly when and how life started, the study reveals the importance of metals in performing cellular functions, and identifies specific conditions and chemical pathways that could have facilitated the emergence of life.
The research could be significant not only for discovering the origins of life on Earth but also for the search for life on other planets.
The Emergence of Life: A Chemical and Physical Puzzle
According to Dustin Trail, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, it is reasonable to suspect that life could have started differently, or not at all, if the early chemical characteristics of our planet were different.
In a paper published in Science, he and Thomas McCollom reveal how their research into the lithosphere’s fluids billions of years ago could provide vital clues to discovering the origins of life.
The research could help scientists input more concrete data into their experiments and models, which would result in a better understanding of how life originated.
Billion-Year-Old Rocks Unlock Clues to Early Earth
The only direct sources of information about Earth’s earliest history are billion-year-old rocks and minerals. These rocks and minerals lock in information about the composition of Earth at the time they were formed.
To determine the oxygen pressure, chlorine content, and temperature of lithospheric fluids billions of years ago, researchers conducted high-pressure, high-temperature experiments and applied the results to early-Earth zircons.
They input this information into computer models, which allowed them to simulate the properties of the lithospheric fluids and, in turn, simulate which metals could have traveled through the fluids to reach hydrothermal pools at Earth’s surface.
Manganese’s Role in the Emergence of Life
While many origin-of-life researchers consider copper a likely component in the chemistry that could have led to life, Trail and McCollom found no evidence that copper would have been abundant under the constraints in their analysis. However, one metal they did test that may have been available in high concentrations was manganese.
This finding is significant because manganese helps the body form bones, and assists enzymes in breaking down carbohydrates and cholesterol. The research shows that metals like manganese may function as important links between the ‘solid’ Earth and emerging biological systems at Earth’s surface.
The Search for Life on Other Planets
According to Trail, the research could provide important implications not only for discovering the origins of life but also for the search for life on other planets. We are now at an exciting time in which humankind is searching for life on other planets and moons, as well as in other planetary systems.
However, we still do not know how—or even when, really—life started on our planet. By identifying specific conditions and chemical pathways that could have supported the emergence of life, this research could factor prominently into the search for life outside of our planet.