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  • richardmitnick 10:59 am on August 6, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA Astrobiology Institute   

    From NASA Astrobiology: “Researchers Use ‘Seafloor Gardens’ to Switch on Light Bulb” 

    NASA

    NASA

    NASA Astrobiology Institute

    Aug. 5, 2015
    Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    Whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

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    This photo simulation shows a laboratory-created “chemical garden,” which is a chimney-like structure found at bubbling vents on the seafloor. Some researchers think life on Earth might have got its start at structures like these billions of years ago, partly due to their ability to transfer electrical currents — an essential trait of life as we know it. The battery-like property of these chemical gardens was demonstrated by linking several together in series to light an LED (light-emitting diode) bulb. In this photo simulation, the bulb is not really attached to the chimney.
    The chimney membranes are made of iron sulfides and iron hydroxides, geologic materials that conduct electrons. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    One of the key necessities for life on our planet is electricity. That’s not to say that life requires a plug and socket, but everything from shrubs to ants to people harnesses energy via the transfer of electrons — the basis of electricity. Some experts think that the very first cell-like organisms on Earth channeled electricity from the seafloor using bubbling, chimney-shaped structures, also known as chemical gardens.

    In a new study, researchers report growing their own tiny chimneys in a laboratory and using them to power a light bulb. The findings demonstrate that the underwater structures may have indeed given an electrical boost to Earth’s very first life forms.

    2
    A laboratory-created “chemical garden” made of a combination of black iron sulfide and orange iron hydroxide/oxide is shown in this photo. Chemical gardens are a nickname for chimney-like structures that form at bubbling vents on the seafloor. Some researchers think that life may have originated at structures like these billions of years ago.

    “These chimneys can act like electrical wires on the seafloor,” said Laurie Barge of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, lead author of a new paper on the findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition. “We’re harnessing energy as the first life on Earth might have.”

    3
    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.
    Credits: D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington

    The findings are helping researchers put together the story of life on Earth, starting with the first chapter of its origins. How life first took root on our nascent planet is a topic riddled with many unanswered chemistry questions. One leading theory for the origins of life, called the alkaline vent hypothesis, is based on the idea that life sprang up underwater with the help of warm, alkaline (as opposed to acidic) chimneys.

    Chimneys naturally form on the seafloor at hydrothermal vents. They range in size from inches to tens of feet (centimeters to tens of meters), and they are made of different types of minerals with, typically, a porous structure. On early Earth, these chimneys could have established electrical and proton gradients across the thin mineral membranes that separate their compartments. Such gradients emulate critical life processes that generate energy and organic compounds.

    “Life doesn’t want to get electrocuted, but needs just the right amount of electricity,” said Michael Russell of JPL, a co-author of the study. “This new experiment confirms what that amount of electricity is — just under a volt.” Russell first proposed the alkaline vent hypothesis in 1989, and even predicted the existence of alkaline vent chimneys more than a decade before they were actually discovered in the Atlantic Ocean and dubbed “The Lost City.”

    Previously, researchers at the University of Tokyo and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology recorded electricity in “black smoker” vent chimneys in the Okinawa Trough in Japan. Black smokers are acidic — and hotter and harsher — than alkaline vents.

    The new study demonstrates that laboratory chimneys similar to alkaline vents on early Earth had enough electricity to do something useful — in this case power an LED (light-emitting diode) light bulb. The researchers connected four of the chemical gardens, submerged in iron-containing fluids, to turn on one light bulb. The process took months of patient laboratory work by Barge and Russell’s team, with the help of an undergraduate student intern at JPL, Yeghegis “Lily” Abedian.

    “I remember when Lily told me the light bulb had turned on. It was shocking,” said Barge (while admitting she likes a good pun).

    The scientists hope to do the experiment again using different materials for their laboratory chimneys. In the current study, they made chimneys of iron sulfide and iron hydroxide, geological materials that can conduct electrons. Future experiments can assess the electrical potential of additional materials thought to have been present in Earth’s early oceans and hydrothermal vents, such as molybdenum, nickel, hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

    “With the right recipe, maybe one chimney alone will be able to light the LED – or instead, we could use that electrochemical energy to power other reactions,” said Barge. “We can also start simulating higher temperature and pressures that occur at hydrothermal vents.”

    Materials or other energy sources thought to have been involved in the possible development of life on other planets and moons can be tested too, such as those on early Mars, or icy worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa.

    The electrical needs of life’s first organisms are only one of many puzzles. Other researchers are trying to figure out how organic materials, such as DNA, might have assembled from scratch. The ultimate goal is to fit all the pieces together into one amazing story of life’s origins.

    The JPL research team is part of the Icy Worlds team of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The Icy Worlds team is led by Isik Kanik of JPL.

    JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena for NASA.

    For more information about the NASA Astrobiology Institute, visit:

    http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai

    See the full article here.

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    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 12:30 pm on April 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , NASA Astrobiology Institute,   

    From NASA: “New Study Outlines ‘Water World’ Theory of Life’s Origins” 

    April 15, 2014
    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-4673
    whitney.clavin@jpl.nasa.gov

    Life took root more than four billion years ago on our nascent Earth, a wetter and harsher place than now, bathed in sizzling ultraviolet rays. What started out as simple cells ultimately transformed into slime molds, frogs, elephants, humans and the rest of our planet’s living kingdoms. How did it all begin?

    A new study from researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the Icy Worlds team at NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., describes how electrical energy naturally produced at the sea floor might have given rise to life. While the scientists had already proposed this hypothesis — called “submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life” — the new report assembles decades of field, laboratory and theoretical research into a grand, unified picture.

    According to the findings, which also can be thought of as the “water world” theory, life may have begun inside warm, gentle springs on the sea floor, at a time long ago when Earth’s oceans churned across the entire planet. This idea of hydrothermal vents as possible places for life’s origins was first proposed in 1980 by other researchers, who found them on the sea floor near Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Called “black smokers,” those vents bubble with scalding hot, acidic fluids. In contrast, the vents in the new study — first hypothesized by scientist Michael Russell of JPL in 1989 — are gentler, cooler and percolate with alkaline fluids. One such towering complex of these alkaline vents was found serendipitously in the North Atlantic Ocean in 2000, and dubbed the Lost City.

    two
    Michael Russell and Laurie Barge of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., are pictured in their Icy Worlds laboratory, where they mimic the conditions of Earth billions of years ago, attempting to answer the question of how life first arose.
    Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    chimney
    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: D. Kelley and M. Elend/University of Washington

    “Life takes advantage of unbalanced states on the planet, which may have been the case billions of years ago at the alkaline hydrothermal vents,” said Russell. “Life is the process that resolves these disequilibria.” Russell is lead author of the new study, published in the April issue of the journal Astrobiology.

    Other theories of life’s origins describe ponds, or “soups,” of chemicals, pockmarking Earth’s battered, rocky surface. In some of those chemical soup models, lightning or ultraviolet light is thought to have fueled life in the ponds.

    The water world theory from Russell and his team says that the warm, alkaline hydrothermal vents maintained an unbalanced state with respect to the surrounding ancient, acidic ocean — one that could have provided so-called free energy to drive the emergence of life. In fact, the vents could have created two chemical imbalances. The first was a proton gradient, where protons — which are hydrogen ions — were concentrated more on the outside of the vent’s chimneys, also called mineral membranes. The proton gradient could have been tapped for energy — something our own bodies do all the time in cellular structures called mitochondria.

    lab
    Underwater Chimney Created in Lab
    A close-up of chimney structures created in the Icy Worlds lab at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Chimney structures like these can be found on the sea floor, surrounding warm, alkaline hydrothermal vents. Researchers are recreating the chimneys in the lab to test the “water world” theory of life’s origins, which says the warm, underwater vents helped kick-start life on Earth billions of years ago. The vents were thought to have been out of balance with respect to the ancient oceans, leading to proton gradients and electron transfer processes — two essential energy sources that all life forms use on Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    The second imbalance could have involved an electrical gradient between the hydrothermal fluids and the ocean. Billions of years ago, when Earth was young, its oceans were rich with carbon dioxide. When the carbon dioxide from the ocean and fuels from the vent — hydrogen and methane — met across the chimney wall, electrons may have been transferred. These reactions could have produced more complex carbon-containing, or organic compounds — essential ingredients of life as we know it. Like proton gradients, electron transfer processes occur regularly in mitochondria.

    “Within these vents, we have a geological system that already does one aspect of what life does,” said Laurie Barge, second author of the study at JPL. “Life lives off proton gradients and the transfer of electrons.”

    As is the case with all advanced life forms, enzymes are the key to making chemical reactions happen. In our ancient oceans, minerals may have acted like enzymes, interacting with chemicals swimming around and driving reactions. In the water world theory, two different types of mineral “engines” might have lined the walls of the chimney structures.

    “These mineral engines may be compared to what’s in modern cars,” said Russell.

    “They make life ‘go’ like the car engines by consuming fuel and expelling exhaust. DNA and RNA, on the other hand, are more like the car’s computers because they guide processes rather than make them happen.”

    One of the tiny engines is thought to have used a mineral known as green rust, allowing it to take advantage of the proton gradient to produce a phosphate-containing molecule that stores energy. The other engine is thought to have depended on a rare metal called molybdenum. This metal also is at work in our bodies, in a variety of enzymes. It assists with the transfer of two electrons at a time rather than the usual one, which is useful in driving certain key chemical reactions.

    “We call molybdenum the Douglas Adams element,” said Russell, explaining that the atomic number of molybdenum is 42, which also happens to be the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe and everything” in Adams’ popular book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Russell joked, “Forty-two may in fact be one answer to the ultimate question of life!”

    The team’s origins of life theory applies not just to Earth but also to other wet, rocky worlds.

    “Michael Russell’s theory originated 25 years ago and, in that time, JPL space missions have found strong evidence for liquid water oceans and rocky sea floors on Europa and Enceladus,” said Barge. “We have learned much about the history of water on Mars, and soon we may find Earth-like planets around faraway stars. By testing this origin-of-life hypothesis in the lab at JPL, we may explain how life might have arisen on these other places in our solar system or beyond, and also get an idea of how to look for it.”

    For now, the ultimate question of whether the alkaline hydrothermal vents are the hatcheries of life remains unanswered. Russell says the necessary experiments are jaw-droppingly difficult to design and carry out, but decades later, these are problems he and his team are still happy to tackle.

    See the full article here.

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 10:40 am on January 17, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , NASA Astrobiology Institute   

    From JPL at Caltech: “Bubbling up Organics in an Ocean Vent Simulator” 

    January 16, 2013

    This week, fizzy ocean water and the alkaline fluid that bubbles up from deep ocean vents are coursing through a structure at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. that is reminiscent of the pillared Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz.

    lab
    A team of scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is testing whether organic molecules can be brewed in a simulated ocean vent. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Scientists with the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s JPL Icy Worlds team have built this series of glass tubes, thin barrels and valves with a laser and a detector system. The set-up mimics the conditions at hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Earth’s ocean and also detects compounds coming out of it. They want to see if sending these two liquids through a sample of rock that simulates ancient volcanic ocean crust can lead to the formation of simple organic molecules such as ethane and methane, and amino acids, biologically important organic molecules. Scientists have long considered these compounds the precursor ingredients for what later led to chains of RNA, DNA and microbes.”

    Jia-Rui Cook 818-354-0850
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    jccook@jpl.nasa.gov

    Karen Jenvey 650-604-4789
    Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
    karen.jenvey@nasa.gov

    See the full article here.

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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