Hot volcanoes located on the ocean floor could have spontaneously gave birth to the organic molecules needed for life in Earth’s early days.
A recent research showed how the surface mineral particles which are found in hydrothermal vents share similar chemical properties to enzymes. According to University College London, these enzymes are charged with the chemical reactions that happen inside living organisms.
These results suggest vents can build simple carbon-based molecules like methanol just by dissolving carbon dioxide in water. The research helps explain how some of the most important building blocks of life appeared, and could have also created the first life forms seen on Earth.
“There is a lot of speculation that hydrothermal vents could be the location where life on Earth began. There is a lot of carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, which could provide the carbon that the chemistry of living organisms is based on, and there is plenty of energy, because the water is hot and turbulent. What our research proves is that these vents also have the chemical properties that encourage these molecules to recombine into molecules usually associated with living organisms,” said Nora de Leeuw, who heads the team.
To reach these findings the scientists combined supercomputer simulations and laboratory experiments to examine at the conditions that could allow mineral particles to catalyze the change of carbon dioxide into organic molecules which are needed in order that life could exist.
The lab experiments simulated the hot alkaline conditions existing in deep sea vents. The experiments provided a “molecule-by-molecule view” of the way the carbon dioxide mixes with the mineral greigite which is also present in the vents.
“We found that the surfaces and crystal structures inside these vents act as catalysts, encouraging chemical changes in the material that settles on them. They behave much like enzymes do in living organisms, breaking down the bonds between carbon and oxygen atoms. This lets them combine with water to produce formic acid, acetic acid, methanol and pyruvic acid. Once you have simple carbon-based chemicals such as these, it opens the door to more complex carbon-based chemistry,” explained Nathan Hollingsworth, a co-author of the study.
The results could be the first step for a new method for developing carbon-based chemicals just out of carbon dioxide without the help of pressure or heat, which could replace the need for oil in many raw material production.
The study was published in a the journal Chemical Communications.
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