We May Have Been Wrong About the Origin of Life
- Published on: 3/27/2021
- Life crawled out of the oceans onto land, right? New research suggests that this popular theory could be wrong.
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We’ve had the idea that life began in the oceans since the 1920s, when it was first put forward. This was cemented in our minds in the 1950s by the classic Miller-Urey experiment from which scientists hypothesized that the ocean-atmospheric cycle of early earth could have been the perfect conditions to instigate life ... but there were many unanswered questions.
Since then, biogenesis researchers—those are the folks who study how life began—have been kind of obsessed with finding that key catalyst that would have brought chemical components together for the first time. And research from the past several years has shown that in some situations, that special sauce could have been UV radiation. And while some teams HAVE been able to recreate the building blocks of life with UV light, no one has yet been able to successfully perform these transformations in experiments that replicate seawater. Meaning that our whole ‘life crawls onto land from the oceans’ idea….could be wrong?
And here’s another problem: while water is a definite requirement for life on earth ...the chemical properties of straight up H2O actually break down proteins. Including things that are made of protein—nucleic acids like DNA and RNA, the genetic material that hold the blueprint for all living things. These days, living cells tightly control their water balance to protect their insides from water degradation, but...how are proteins supposed to have formed IN a substance that actively attacks and degrades them? Scientists now call this ‘the water paradox’.
How the first life on Earth survived its biggest threat — water
Although many scientists have long speculated that those pioneering cells arose in the ocean, recent research suggests that the key molecules of life, and its core processes, can form only in places such as Jezero — a relatively shallow body of water fed by streams.
Nasa's Perseverance Mars rover listens to its rock-zapping laser
Its first rock target selected for study was dubbed "Máaz", which means Mars in the Navajo language spoken by Native Americans in the southwestern United States. Máaz was found, to no-one's real surprise, to be basaltic in nature. Basalt is very common on Mars.
We’ve been wrong about the origins of life for 90 years
A study published last month in Nature Microbiology suggests the last common ancestor of all living cells fed on hydrogen gas in a hot iron-rich environment, much like that within the vents. Advocates of the conventional theory have been skeptical that these findings should change our view of the origins of life. But the hydrothermal vent hypothesis, which is often described as exotic and controversial, explains how living cells evolved the ability to obtain energy, in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in a primordial soup.
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