Radioactive Hot Spots on Earth’s Beaches May Have Sparked Life

We’ve heard about life being created in a puddle of primordial chemical soup, sparked by lightning strikes, or organic molecules falling to Earth from comets or planets, such as Mars. But now, there is an alternative. Early Earth was radioactive; the Moon also had a lower orbit, generating strong tidal forces. Due to the close proximity to abundant water, radioactive beaches may have possessed all the essential ingredients for organic compounds, and eventually life, to thrive.

Research by the University of Washington, Seattle, suggests that perhaps the highly radioactive environment of Earth some 4 billion years ago may have been the ideal time for life to form. The orbit of the Moon also had a part to play in this offbeat theory.

Through strong tidal forces by a Moon that orbited far closer to the Earth than it does today, radioactive elements accumulated on the beaches could be gravitationally sorted. The chemical energy in these beach hot spots was probably high enough to allow self-sustaining fission processes (which occurs in natural concentrations of uranium). The main product from fission is heat, therefore powering chemical processes and the generation of organic, life-giving compounds.

“Amino acids, sugars and [soluble] phosphate can all be produced simultaneously in a radioactive beach environment.” – Zachary Adam, an astrobiologist at the University of Washington Seattle.

This is a hard theory to understand, it is well known that radioactivity breaks down organic molecules and causes a whole host of problems for us carbon-based creatures. But in the early Earth, devoid of plants and animals, radioactive processes may have provided energy for life to begin in the first place.

This theory also partially explains why life may be a very rare occurrence in the universe: there must be the correct concentration of radioactive elements, on the surface of a water-dominated developing planet, with tidal forces supplied by a closely orbiting stellar body. The Earth may, after all, be unique.


28 Replies to “Radioactive Hot Spots on Earth’s Beaches May Have Sparked Life”

  1. Look to the stars. We are learning rapidly, that star formation exists under all types of peculiar conditions we had never imagined. I tend to believe we will be surprised just the same at the multiplicity in environments conducive for life to evolve.

  2. Interesting theory, but other factors for life to occur are also important such as distance from the sun and the existence of a magnetic field, no?

  3. i guess,the mistery of life on planet earth may well be found one day on our nearest planet mars.!!

  4. Anyone interested in this topic would be well advised to read Hugh Rollinson’s “Early Earth Systems” ISBN 1-4051-2255-2

    It is very informative but give no indication that a productive concentration of radioactive elements occured at this time.


  5. Radioactive sparked life! Could be! The theory is plausible. Concerning the uniqueness of life in the universe, I suspect the cosmos is bubbling with life forms. The vast majority are probably unintelligent with the probability that some are at the human intelligence level while a few rare ones are most likely more advanced. Why no contact? Simple! Way too much distance between us and them. Modulated rf, light or laser peters out to undetectable levels at fairly short cosmic distances. Do the math.

  6. ZacK: We’re still workin’ on what killed the dinosaurs, not what created it em’… I’ll stick with “Primordial Soup Theory”

  7. Within our own Solar System we see another close planet-moon ratio. Pluto and charon.

    Remember the planet stacking idea . . .

    I don’t think we (life on earth) are so rare after all.
    Just you wait n see meesterrrr.

  8. Life on earth consists of birds, whales, starfish, algae, spiders, man, etc. etc. How can anyone believe that life was so unique that it only formed on Earth and then, over millions of years, it split into hundreds of thousands of completely different forms? There are thousands of places on Earth that every one of us have not visited yet and NEVER will. So how hard is it to believe that that there are other life forms that just have not found Earth yet? It’s only a matter of time! The answer may be found as soon as man traveling to Mars!

  9. HUH????? Who needs radio-isotopes to power life??? And anyway, the whole item is riddled with holes. For example “the highly radioactive environment of Earth some 4 billion years ago” Oh? Who says this? Based upon what evidence? And we have the sentence “The chemical energy in these beach hot spots was probably high enough to allow self-sustaining fission processes…” Excuse me, but CHEMICAL energy causing FISSION (i.e. Nuclear) processes?

    I could go on, but I’d be retyping almost the whole thing, so I won’t. At any rate, this all sounds like some almost cretinist made it up and I am surprised that it was published in Universe Today. If it is, in fact, an attempt to report legitimate research then the article itself was written by someone who doesn’t seem to understand the material.

  10. Seems plausable by my knowledge. Because radiation can cause genetic deforms, and destroy/manipulate DNA, perhaps it did have a role. But how are we to know for sure. I’d do exactly what the mythbusters would do. Test it!!

  11. Remember that the odds say “if it happens at least once it is bound to happen again”!

    Any form of life will always be the norm!

  12. What would keep the radioactive material together to maintain the fission? Only the Moon?


  13. I wonder. The early moons’s orbit was much farther. It is the tidal forces which has brought it to its present orbital distance.

  14. Of all the crazy ideas about the origin of life, this has to be the craziest! For most of my professional career I was in Nuclear Medicine and I taught that radioactivity kills living cells – especially rapidly dividing ones.
    Talk about clutching at straws and this from people who ridicule those believing in Divine intervention or even Intelligent Design.
    I can just picture a cartoon showing a number of radionuclides chatting. ” Hey guys, there is nothing around here to kill off. Let’s make something we can destroy!”

  15. There is another theory that has already exponded on the idea of ionizing radiation as a source of genetic variablitiy and species origination. The book, “The Vital Vastness”, goes into the process. The source of the radiation is not external to the Earth, but from the Earth itself. It is also the cause of mass extinctions and mass speciations. A brief overview can be found at It is also responsible for the K/T boundary mass extinctions (dinosaurs, etc), also shown in an overview at Reading the book gives much more supporting info and references.

  16. So many theories
    So many stars
    So many galaxies
    So many millions of years
    Probability surely states life is everywhere especially considering the variety here.
    Yet we can’t make it, nor find it.

    Who is the God person anyway?

  17. I have problems with this theory. Nuclear FISSION is a process which occurs spontaneously, but can be induced by neutron bombardment. Now this is where the ‘fun’ starts: high-energy neutrons are produced by nuclear fission itself. In other words: it’s rather easy to cause a devastating chain reaction. The amount of radiation caused by any such event would most likely kill off anything in the vicinity. Note that radiation exposure would not be short-term or homogeneous: the wide variety of fission products are themselves often highly radioactive, causing exposure to various amounts of electrons, helium nucleii and gamma rays.

    The only observations we so far have, is that these kinds of radiation KILL and cause unwanted mutation in the genome. Hardly the environment I would see as being conductive to life, let alone evolution.

    If we are talking about a very early mass-EXTINCTION, then this theory might be worthwile.

  18. Yes, sufficient uranium can exist to create a natural reactor (there are several active today, Google natural reactor). The radiation levels are not lethal.

    Radiation, besides causing cell death due to creation of free radicals can also cause genetic anomies (mutations) Most are not viable and result in cell death (same as anything that causes genetic anomalies). However, an occasional anomaly is viable and even beneficial and can replicate thus promoting people’s fear of mutation.

    In the early formation of the earth, the abundance of uranium was higher so more than a couple of active natural reactors could have existed. Overall, this is a very interesting theory.

  19. This theory is good, the commentary is not. We all know, including the editor of Universe Today, that a planet doesn’t need to have water to form life, just solvent. Ammonia, for example, would work fine.

    Additionally, why do you need a moon and tides to create pools? Rain, and especially springs, are just fine.

    I was about to say that this is what happens when untrained journalists report on science when a majority of news organizations no longer even have a science editor, but Mr. O’Neill see is a solar physicist, so I don’t know what purpose of “The Earth may, after all, be unique.”

    I cringed when I read that line.

  20. To Rev Rob, “A unique earth” may or may not be. Blind faith thinking one way or the other does not make it so. An open mind to the possibilities of what is or isn’t is what science research is about. Closed minds in science simply don’t make it.

  21. Tides are not for pools, but for …” radioactive elements accumulated on the beaches could be gravitationally sorted” … you know, like sized stuff accumulates together on a beach.

  22. I like the idea actually. It does not say however that this is the only way in which life could have formed on earth.
    There are any number of ways in which life forms could have developed independently of one another. We find all sorts of extremophile (sp?) life forms. We have radioactive loving ones 2 miles down in gold mines, living on uranium. We have them living in the cooling vents of nuclear reactors. Some live in almost straight acid conditions, while others live in pure alkaline conditions. Some bacteria live on sulphur compounds, some on methane, some even eat crude oil. Life has been found 6Km below the Earth’s surface (a la Thomas Gold). Dr. Godfrey Louis has found that the “red rain” organisms (Kerala, India) can withstand extreme tempuratures (650 degrees Fahrenheit,) high pressures and live on a wide variety of substances ( Incuding but not restricted to methanol, iodine and cedar oil.)
    Life has been found to survive the vacuum of space, live by eating solid rock, and hibernating for millions of years in solid Antarctic ice to be later revived..
    I have come to believe in the idea of panspermia, that anywhere life can exist ,it probably will exist, whether beneath the surface of a planet or even hibernating on a passing comet or asteroid. I have come to believe this from simply observing life on Earth.

  23. To Timothy A, DeLany,.
    And all of what you so eioquently describe is happening in four dimensions.

  24. Dear Chuck Lam: If the universe is indeed 14 -16 billion years old and we are a mere (as a planet) 4.6 billion years old, we are yet infants in the scheme of things. We, as humans have been around less than two million years? In our own gallaxy we are the new kids on the block, still wet behind the ears. Who is to say that we are the pinacle of civilization in the universe? More than likely, in view of our recent history, we are the laughing stock of the block! Our main occupation is the planning of our own self-destruction. Any civilization that would want to check us out would not want to land in the open, because we would shoot first and ask questions later ( Oops, even the Russians decided against that! From experience, I might add.) With project ‘Blue Book’ take a closer look. I have a book by it first head investigator; one out of five could not be explained. It is not a matter of all UFO’s being extraterrestrial. It is a matter of any UfO’s being extraterrestrial!
    My wife is calling for me to call it quits for the night, so I will be looking forward to continuing this discussion later!
    Life does not necessarily need oxygen and may not even need water to survivie. The tempuatures may widely vary as well as the air pressure (water pressure,) day length or year. All of the life forms mentioned in my previous post exist here on earth today. Some were only recently discovered, but all are here now!

  25. tim is right, sugars oxgen, water, all of these things are building blocks for earthlings but carbon based life might be very hard to sustain in the early stages. who knows, there might be rock people! or even creatures made of gasses!

  26. Hello Tim D., You are so correct in your views. Yes, I suspect that we are truly infants in the universal scheme of things. Considering the age of the universe, there just has to be a few “more advanced civilizations” out there. Maybe not in our galaxy, but they are out there. As I have repeatedly said, I believe the reason for no contact or possibily of no contact ever with another civilation is rarity and the the mind bending distances involved. Modulated electromagnetic energy in any form peters-out to nothing at fairly short cosmic distance. Maybe one day somone will develop a means to detect a billionth of a femto watt.

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