From NASA AMES: “How Did Earth’s Primitive Chemistry Get Kick Started?”

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July 30, 2013
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

“How did life on Earth get started? Three new papers co-authored by Mike Russell, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., strengthen the case that Earth’s first life began at alkaline hydrothermal vents at the bottom of oceans. Scientists are interested in understanding early life on Earth because if we ever hope to find life on other worlds — especially icy worlds with subsurface oceans such as Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus — we need to know what chemical signatures to look for.

This image from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean shows a collection of limestone towers known as the “Lost City.” Alkaline hydrothermal vents of this type are suggested to be the birthplace of the first living organisms on the ancient Earth. Image Credit: Image courtesy D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Wash.

Two papers published recently in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B provide more detail on the chemical and precursor metabolic reactions that have to take place to pave the pathway for life. Russell and his co-authors describe how the interactions between the earliest oceans and alkaline hydrothermal fluids likely produced acetate (comparable to vinegar). The acetate is a product of methane and hydrogen from the alkaline hydrothermal vents and carbon dioxide dissolved in the surrounding ocean. Once this early chemical pathway was forged, acetate could become the basis of other biological molecules. They also describe how two kinds of “nano-engines” that create organic carbon and polymers — energy currency of the first cells — could have been assembled from inorganic minerals.

A paper published in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta analyzes the structural similarity between the most ancient enzymes of life and minerals precipitated at these alkaline vents, an indication that the first life didn’t have to invent its first catalysts and engines.”

See the full article here.

Ames Research Center, one of 10 NASA field Centers, is located in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. For over 60 years, Ames has led NASA in conducting world-class research and development. With 2500 employees and an annual budget of $900 million, Ames provides NASA with advancements in:
Entry systems: Safely delivering spacecraft to Earth & other celestial bodies
Supercomputing: Enabling NASA’s advanced modeling and simulation
NextGen air transportation: Transforming the way we fly
Airborne science: Examining our own world & beyond from the sky
Low-cost missions: Enabling high value science to low Earth orbit & the moon
Biology & astrobiology: Understanding life on Earth — and in space
Exoplanets: Finding worlds beyond our own
Autonomy & robotics: Complementing humans in space
Lunar science: Rediscovering our moon
Human factors: Advancing human-technology interaction for NASA missions
Wind tunnels: Testing on the ground before you take to the sky


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