Category: Early Earth (page 3 of 3)

Could High-Energy Radiation Have Played an Important Role in Getting Earth Ready For Life?

A version of this article first appeared in Astrobiology Magazine,

The fossil remains of a natural nuclear reactor in Oklo, Gabon.  It entered a fission state some 2 billion years ago, and so would not have been involved in any origin of life scenario.  But is a proof of concept that these natural reactors have existed and some were widespread on earth Earth.  It is but one possible source of high energy particles on early Earth. The yellow rock is uranium oxide. (Robert D. Loss, Curtin University, Australia)

Life on early Earth seems to have begun with a paradox: while life needs water as a solvent, the essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water. Our universal solvent, it turns out, can be extremely corrosive.

Some have pointed to this paradox as a sign that life, or the precursor of life, originated elsewhere and was delivered here via comets or meteorites. Others have looked for solvents that could have the necessary qualities of water without that bond-breaking corrosiveness.

In recent years the solvent often put forward as the eligible alternative to water is formamide, a clear and moderately irritating liquid consisting of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Unlike water, it does not break down the long-chain molecules needed to form the nucleic acids and proteins that make up life’s key initial instruction manual, RNA. Meanwhile it also converts via other useful reactions into key compounds needed to make nucleic acids in the first place.

Although formamide is common in star-forming regions of space, scientists have struggled to find pathways for it to be prevalent, or even locally concentrated, on early Earth. In fact, it is hardly present on Earth today except as a synthetic chemical for companies.

New research presented by Zachary Adam, an earth scientist at Harvard University, and Masashi Aono, a complex systems scientist at Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology, has produced formamide by way of a surprising and reproducible pathway: bombardment with radioactive particles.


In a room fitted for cobalt-60 testing on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, a team of researchers gather around the (still covered) cobalt-60 and vials of the chemicals they were testing. The ELSI scientists are (from left) Masashi Aono,  James Cleaves, Zachary Adam and Riquin Yi.  (Isao Yoda)

The two and their colleagues exposed a mixture of two chemicals known to have existed on early Earth (hydrogen cyanide and aqueous acetonitrile) to the high-energy particles emitted from a cylinder of cobalt-60, an artificially produced radioactive isotope commonly used in cancer therapy.… Read more

Messy Chemistry: A New Way to Approach the Origins of Life

Astrobiologist and chemist Irena Mamajanov and prebiotic chemist Kuhan Chandru in their messy chemistry garb at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. Mamajanov leads an effort at the institute to study a new “messy” path to understanding how some prebiotic chemical systems led to building blocks of life on early Earth. (Nerissa Escanlar)

More than a half century ago, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey famously put water and gases believed to make up the atmosphere of early Earth into a flask with water, sparked the mix with an electric charge, and produced amino acids and other chemical building blocks of life.

The experiment was hailed as a ground-breaking reproduction of how the essential components of life may have been formed, or at least a proof of concept that important building blocks of life could be formed from more simple components.

Little discussed by anyone outside the origins of life scientific community was that the experiment also produced a lot of a dark, sticky substance, a gooey tar that covered the beaker’s insides. It was dismissed as largely unimportant and regrettable then, and in the thousands of parallel origins of life experiments that followed.

Today, however, some intrepid researchers are looking at the tarry residue in a different light.

Tarry residue from an experiment — a common result when organic compounds are heated.

Just maybe, they argue, the tar was equally if not more important as those prized amino acids (which, after all, were hidden away in the tar until they were extracted out.) Maybe the messy tar – produced by the interaction of organic compounds and an energy source — offers a pathway forward in a field that has produced many advances but ultimately no breakthrough.

Those now studying the tar call their research “messy chemistry,” as opposed to the “clean” chemistry that focused on the acclaimed organic compounds.

There are other centers where different versions of “messy chemistry” research are under way — including George Cody’s lab at the Carnegie Institution for Sciences and Nicholas Hud’s at the Georgia Institute of Technology — but it is probably most concentrated at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo (ELSI.)

There, messy chemistry is viewed as an ignored but promising way forward, and almost a call to arms.

“In classical origin-of-life synthetic chemistry and biology you’re looking at one reaction and analyzing its maximum result. It’s A+B = C+D,” said Irena Mamajanov, an astrobiologist with a background in chemistry who is now a principal investigator ELSI and head of the overall messy chemistry project.… Read more

In Search of Panspermia (and Life on Icy Moons)


Sometimes personal affairs intervene for all of us, and they have now for your Many Worlds writer and his elderly father.  But rather than remain off the radar screen, I wanted to repost this column which has a new import. 

It turns out that versions of the instrument described below — a miniature gene sequencing device produced by Oxford Nanopore — have been put forward as the kind of technology that could detect life in the plume of Enceladus, or perhaps on Europa or Titan. 

Major figures in the astrobiology field, including Steve Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME) and Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center see this kind of detection of the basic polymer backbone of RNA or DNA life as a potentially significant way forward.  Three different “Icy Moon” teams are vying for a NASA New Frontiers mission to Enceladus and Titan, and this kind of technology plays a role in at least one of the proposed missions.


Early Earth, like early Mars and no doubt many other planets, was bombarded by meteorites and comets. Could they have arrived "living" microbes inside them?

Early Earth, like early Mars and no doubt many other planets, was bombarded by meteorites and comets. Could they have arrived “living” microbes inside them?

When scientists approach the question of how life began on Earth, or elsewhere, their efforts generally involve attempts to understand how non-biological molecules bonded, became increasingly complex, and eventually reached the point where they could replicate or could use sources of energy to make things happen.  Ultimately, of course, life needed both.

Researchers have been working for some time to understand this very long and winding process, and some have sought to make synthetic life out of selected components and energy.  Some startling progress has been made in both of these endeavors, but many unexplained mysteries remain at the heart of the processes.  And nobody is expecting the origin of life on Earth (or elsewhere) to be fully understood anytime soon.

To further complicate the picture, the history of early Earth is one of extreme heat caused by meteorite bombardment and, most important, the enormous impact some 4.5 billion years of the Mars-sized planet that became our moon.  As a result, many early Earth researchers think the planet was uninhabitable until about 4 billion years ago.

Yet some argue that signs of Earth life 3.8 billion years ago have been detected in the rock record, and lifeforms were certainly present 3.5 billion years ago.  Considering the painfully slow pace of early evolution — the planet, after all, supported only single-cell life for several billion years before multicellular life emerged — some

dna animation. the big 300

A DNA helix animation.

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Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak: Exoplanets Gave The Origin of Life Field a Huge Boost

Jack Szostak, Nobel laureate and pioneering researcher in the origin-of-life field, was the featured speaker at a workshop this week at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo.  One goal of his Harvard lab is to answer this once seemingly impossible question:  was the origin of life on Earth essentially straight-forward and “easy,” or was it enormously “hard” and consequently rare in the universe. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Sometimes tectonic shifts in scientific disciplines occur because of discoveries and advances in the field.  But sometimes they occur for reasons entirely outside the field itself.  Such appears to be case with origins-of-life studies.

Nobel laureate Jack Szostak was recently in Tokyo to participate in a workshop at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology on “Reconstructing the Phenomenon of Life To Retrace the Emergence of Life.”

The talks were technical and often cutting-edge, but the backstory that Szostak tells of why he and so many other top scientists are now in the origins of life field was especially intriguing and illuminating in terms of how science progresses.

Those ground-shifting discoveries did not involve traditional origin-of-life questions of chemical transformations and pathways.  They involved exoplanets.

“Because of the discovery of all those exoplanets, astronomy has been transformed along with many other fields,” Szostak said after the workshop.

“We now know there’s a large range of planetary environments out there, and that has stimulated a huge amount of interest in where else in the universe might there be life.  Is it just here?  We know for sure that lots of environments could support life and we also would like to know:  do they?

“This has stimulated much more laboratory-based work to try to address the origins question.  What’s really important is for us to know whether the transition from chemistry to biology is easy and can happen frequently and anywhere, or are there one or many difficult steps that make life potentially very rare?”

In other words, the explosion in exoplanet science has led directly to an invigorated scientific effort to better understand that road from a pre-biotic Earth to a biological Earth — with chemistry that allows compounds to replicate, to change, to surround themselves in cell walls, and to grow ever more complex.

With today’s increased pace of research, Szostak said, the chances of finding some solid answers have been growing.  In fact, he’s quite optimistic that an answer will ultimately be forthcoming to the question of how life began on Earth.… Read more

The Magma Ocean and Us

A vast magma ocean covered the very early Earth in its late period of formation, the likely result of heat from impacts as materials large and small fell to Earth.  The magma ocean climbed to temperatures of 2000˚F and well above and reached depths of hundreds of miles.  Magma breaks the surface now only rarely in volcanic eruption, when it is called lava. This lava lake sits in Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo. (National Geographic.)

In the late stages of the formation of Earth, the planet was a brutally hot, rough place.  But perhaps not precisely in the way you might imagine.

Most renderings of that time show red-hot lava flowing around craggy rocks, with meteorites falling and volcanoes erupting.  But according to those who study the time, the reality was rather different.

There was most likely no land much of the time, the medium to large meteorites arrived every few thousand years , and the surface was the consistency of a kind of room-temperature oil.  Of course it was not oil, since this was a pre-organic time.  Rather, it was mostly molten silicates and iron that covered the Earth in a “magma ocean.”

At its most extreme, the magma ocean may have been as deep in places as the radius of Mars.  And it would have created thick atmospheres of carbon dioxide, silica dust, other toxic gases and later water vapor.

While meteor impacts did play a major role in those earliest days, the dynamics of the magma ocean were more determined by the convection currents of the super-hot magma (2000 degrees F and more), the high winds blowing above the surface, the steam atmosphere it often created and ultimately by the cooling that over hundreds of million of years led to the formation of a solid crust.

There is a burgeoning scientific interest in the magma ocean, which is expected to be part of the formation of any terrestrial planet and some lunar formations.  The research focuses on the gaining an understanding of the characteristics and diversity of magma oceans, and increasingly on the potentially significant role it plays in the origin of life on Earth, and perhaps elsewhere.

The reason why is pretty simple:  life (i.e., biochemistry) emerged on Earth from geochemistry (i.e., rocks and sediment.)  Some of the earliest geochemistry occurred in the magma ocean, and so it makes sense to learn as much as possible about the very earliest conditions that ultimately led to the advent of biology.… Read more

Messy Chemistry, Evolving Rocks, and the Origin of Life

Ribosomes are life’s oldest and most universal assembly of molecules. Today’s ribosome converts genetic information (RNA) into proteins that carry out various functions in an organism. A growing number of scientists are exploring how earliest components of life such as the ribosome came to be. They’re making surprising progress, but the going remains tough.


Noted synthetic life researcher Steven Benner of Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME) is fond of pointing out that gooey tars are the end product of too many experiments in his field.  His widely-held view is that the tars, made out of chemicals known to be important in the origin of life, are nonetheless a dead end to be avoided when trying to work out how life began.

But in the changing world of origins of life research, others are asking whether those messy tars might not be a breeding ground for the origin of life, rather than an obstacle to it.

One of those is chemist and astrobiologist Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI)  in Tokyo.  As she recently explained during an institute symposium, scientists know that tar-like substances were present on early Earth, and that she and her colleagues are now aggressively studying their potential role in the prebiotic chemical transformations that ultimately allowed life to emerge out of non-life.

“We call what we do messy chemistry, and we think it can help shed light on some important processes that make life possible.”

Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo was the science lead for a just completed symposium on emerging approaches to the origin of life question. (Credit: Nerissa Escanlar)

It stands to reason that the gunky tar played a role, she said, because tars allow some essential processes to occur:  They can concentrate compounds, it can encapsulate them, and they could provide a kind of primitive (messy) scaffolding that could eventually evolve into the essential backbones of a living entity.

“Scientists in the field have tended to think of the origin of life as a process going from simple to more complex, but we think it may have gone from very complex — messy — to more structured.”

Mamajanov is part of an unusual Japanese and international group gathered at (ELSI), a relatively new site on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. It is dedicated to origin of life and origin of Earth study, with a mandate to be interdisciplinary and to think big and outside the box.… Read more

The Stellar Side of The Exoplanet Story

K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days, and as a result its characteristics are very much determined by its host. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)


When it comes to the study of exoplanets, it’s common knowledge that the host stars don’t get much respect.

Yes, everyone knows that there wouldn’t be exoplanets without stars, and that they serve as the essential background for exoplanet transit observations and as the wobbling object that allows for radial velocity measurements that lead to new exoplanets discoveries.

But stars in general have been seen and studied for ever, while the first exoplanet was identified only 20-plus years ago.  So it’s inevitable that host stars have generally take a back seat to the compelling newly-found exoplanets that orbit them.

As the field of exoplanet studies moves forward, however, and tries to answer questions about the characteristics of the planets and their odds of being habitable, the perceived importance of the host stars is on the rise.

The logic:  Stars control space weather, and those conditions produce a space climate that is conducive or not so conducive to habitability and life.

Space weather consists of a variety of enormously energetic events ranging from solar wind to solar flares and coronal mass ejections, and their characteristics are defined by the size, variety and age of the star.  It is often said that an exoplanet lies in a “habitable zone” if it can support some liquid water on its surface, but absent some protection from space weather it will surely be habitable in name only.

A recognition of this missing (or at least less well explored) side of the exoplanet story led to the convening of a workshop this week in New Orleans on “The Impact of Exoplanetary Space Weather On Climate and Habitability.”

“We’re really just starting to detect and understand the secret lives of stars,”  said Vladimir Airapetian, a senior scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center.  He organized the highly interdisciplinary workshop for the Nexus for Exoplanet Space Studies (NExSS,) a NASA initiative.

“What has become clear is that a star affects and actually defines the character of a planet orbiting around it,” he said.  “And now we want to look at that from the point of view of astrophysicists, heliophysicists, planetary scientists and astrobiologists.”

William Moore, principal investigator for a NASA-funded team also studying how host stars affect their exoplanets, said the field was changing fast and that “trying to understand those (space weather) impacts has become an essential task in the search for habitable planets.”… Read more

One Planet, But Many Different Earths

Artist conception of early Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Artist conception of early Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

We all know that life has not been found so far on any planet beyond Earth — at least not yet.  This lack of discovery of extraterrestrial life has long been used as a knock on the field of astrobiology and has sometimes been put forward as a measure of Earth’s uniqueness.

But the more recent explosion in exoplanet discoveries and the next-stage efforts to characterize their atmospheres and determine their habitability has led to rethinking about how to understand the lessons of life of Earth.

Because when seen from the perspective of scientists working to understand what might constitute an exoplanet that can sustain life,  Earth is a frequent model but hardly a stationary or singular one.  Rather, our 4.5 billion year history — and especially the almost four billion years when life is believed to have been present  — tells many different stories.

For example, our atmosphere is now oxygen-rich, but for billions of years had very little of that compound most associated with complex life.  And yet life existed.

The same with temperature.  Earth went through snowball or slushball periods when most of the planet’s surface was frozen over.  Hardly a good candidate for life, and yet the planet remained habitable and inhabited.

And in its early days, Earth had a very weak magnetic field and was receiving only 70 to 80 percent as much energy from the sun as it does today.  Yet it supported life.

“It’s often said that there’s an N of one in terms of life detected in the universe,” that there is but one example, said Timothy Lyons, a biogeochemist and distinguished professor at University of California, Riverside.

“But when you look at the conditions on Earth over billion of years, it’s pretty clear that the planet had very different kinds of atmospheres and oceans, very different climate regimes, very different luminosity coming from the sun.  Yet we know there was life under all those very different conditions.

“It’s one planet, but it’s silly to think of it as one planetary regime. Each of our past chapters is a potential exoplanet.”


A rendering of the theorized "Snowball Earth" period when, for millions of years, the Earth was entirely or largely covered by ice, stretching from the poles to the tropics. This freezing happened over 650 million years ago in the Pre-Cambrian, though it's now thought that there may have been more than one of these global glaciations. They varied in duration and extent but during a full-on snowball event, life could only cling on in ice-free refuges, or where sunlight managed to penetrate through the ice to allow photosynthesis.

A particularly extreme phase of our planet’s history is called  the “Snowball Earth” period.  During these episodes, the Earth’s surface was entirely or largely covered by ice for millions of years, stretching from the poles to the tropics. One such freezing happened over 700 to 800 million years ago in the Pre-Cambrian, around the time that animals appeared.

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The Search for Exoplanet Life Goes Broad and Deep

The scientific lessons learned over the centuries about the geological, chemical and later biological dynamics of Earth are beginning to enter the discussion of exoplanets, and especially which might be conducive to life. This is an artist's view of the young Earth under bombardment by asteroids, one of many periods with conditions likely to have parallels in other solar systems. (NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

The scientific lessons learned over the centuries about the geological, chemical and later biological dynamics of Earth are beginning to enter the discussion of exoplanets, and especially which might be conducive to life. This is an artist’s view of the young Earth under bombardment by asteroids, one of many periods with conditions likely to have parallels in other solar systems. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab)

I had the good fortune several years ago to spend many hours in meetings of the science teams for the Curiosity rover, listening in on discussions about what new results beamed back from Mars might mean about the planet’s formation, it’s early history, how it gained and lost an atmosphere, whether it was a place where live could begin and survive.  (A resounding ‘yes” to that last one.)

At the time, the lead of the science team was a geologist, Caltech’s John Grotzinger, and many people in the room had backgrounds in related fields like geochemistry and mineralogy, as well as climate modelers and specialists in atmospheres.  There were also planetary scientists, astrobiologists and space engineers, of course, but the geosciences loomed large, as they have for all Mars landing missions.

Until very recently, exoplanet research did not have much of that kind interdisciplinary reach, and certainly has not included many scientists who focus on the likes of vulcanism, plate tectonics and the effects of stars on planets.  Exoplanets has been largely the realm of astronomers and astrophysicists, with a sprinkling again of astrobiologists.

But as the field matures, as detecting exoplanets and inferring their orbits and size becomes an essential but by no means the sole focus of researchers, the range of scientific players in the room is starting to broaden.  It’s a process still in its early stages, but exoplanet breakthroughs already achieved, and the many more predicted for the future, are making it essential to bring in some new kinds of expertise.

A meeting reflecting and encouraging this reality was held last week at Arizona State University and brought together several dozen specialists in the geo-sciences with a similar number specializing in astronomy and exoplanet detection.  Sponsored by NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet Systems Science (NExSS), NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and the National Science Foundation,  it was a conscious effort to bring more scientists expert in the dynamics and evolution of our planet into the field of exoplanet study, while also introducing astronomers to the chemical and geological imperatives of the distant planets they are studying.… Read more

Many Worlds, Subterranean Edition

Scanning electron microscope blue-tinted image of nematode on biofilm, collected from Kopanang mine almost one mile below surface. (Borgonie, ELi)

Scanning electron microscope blue-tinted image of a nematode on bio-film, collected from Kopanang mine almost one mile below surface. (Borgonie, ELi)

One of the richest lines of research for those thinking about life beyond Earth has been the world of microscopic creatures that live in especially extreme and hostile environments here.  The realm of extremophiles has exploded in roughly the period that exoplanet discoveries have exploded, and both serve to significantly change our view of what’s possible in nature writ large.

I was reminded of this with the publication today of a paper on extreme life in the deep mines of South Africa.  This is not a brand new story, but rather significant step forward in a story that has implications galore for the search for life beyond Earth.

The extremophile chronology in South Africa goes like this:

First there was the microbe D. Audaxviator, “the Bold Traveler,” found living in light-less solitude more than two miles down a South African gold mine. Nothing alive had ever been found in rock fractures at that depth before.

Then there was H. Mephisto, the “Worm From Hell,” the first complex, multi-cellular creature (a type of worm) found living at almost equal depths in the same group of mines.

SEM of critters

Scanning electron microscope images of species of worms and a crustacean from Driefontein and Kopanang mines (Borgonie, ELi)

Now the researchers who made both of those discoveries have discovered a “veritable zoo” of multicellular creatures living in the wet rock fissures of the gold and diamond mines of the Witwaterstrand Basin of South Africa, roughly
a mile below the surface.

The earlier discoveries (reports about them were published in 2006 and 2011) had already changed scientists’ understanding of life in the rocky underworld. They had also given encouragement to those convinced that microbes and maybe multi-celled creatures can survive in fissures deep below the surface  of Mars and other moons and planets. The latest jackpot carries this shift in thinking further.

“It is very crowded in some places down under,” said Gaetan Borgonie of ELi, a Belgian nonprofit that studies extreme life, and of South Africa’s University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.

Borgonie, lead author of a paper about the “veritable zoo,” said that his discovery in 2011 of a new species of nematode at great depth had been dismissed by some as a “freak find.” But now, he said, “the fact that we have found in two mines, in different water, two ecosystems featuring several types of invertebrates hopefully puts that notion to rest as wrong.”… Read more

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