The last few years has seen an explosion of exoplanet discoveries. Some of those worlds are in what we deem the “habitable zone,” at least in preliminary observations. But how many of them will have life-supporting, oxygen-rich atmospheres in the same vein as Earth’s?
A new study suggests that breathable atmospheres might not be as rare as we thought on planets as old as Earth.
The question of how life first emerged here on Earth is a mystery that continues to elude scientists. Despite everything that scientists have learned from the fossil record and geological history, it is still not known how organic life emerged from inorganic elements (a process known as abiogenesis) billions of years ago.
One of the more daunting aspects of the mystery has to do with peptides and enzymes, which fall into something of a “chicken and egg” situation. Addressing this, a team of researchers from the University College London (UCL) recently conducted a study that effectively demonstrated that peptides could have formed in conditions analogus to primordial Earth.
The Earth wasn’t formed containing the necessary chemicals for life to begin. One well-supported theory, called the “late veneer theory”, suggests that the volatile chemicals needed for life arrived long after the Earth formed, brought here by meteorites. But a new study challenges the late veneer theory.
Evidence shows that the Moon was created when a Mars-sized planet named Theia collided with the Earth. The impact created a debris ring out of which the Moon formed. Now, this new study says that same impact may have delivered the necessary chemicals for life to the young Earth.
The idea of panspermia — that life on Earth originated from comets or asteroids bombarding our planet — is not new. But new research may have given the theory a boost. Scientists from Japan say their experiments show that early comet impacts could have caused amino acids to change into peptides, becoming the first building blocks of life. Not only would this help explain the genesis of life on Earth, but it could also have implications for life on other worlds.
Dr. Haruna Sugahara, from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokahama, and Dr. Koichi Mimura, from Nagoya University said they conducted “shock experiments on frozen mixtures of amino acid, water ice and silicate (forsterite) at cryogenic condition (77 K),” according to their paper. “In the experiments, the frozen amino acid mixture was sealed into a capsule … a vertical propellant gun was used to [simulate] impact shock.”
They analyzed the post-impact mixture with gas chromatography, and found that some of the amino acids had joined into short peptides of up to 3 units long (tripeptides).
Based on the experimental data, the researchers were able to estimate that the amount of peptides produced would be around the same as had been thought to be produced by normal terrestrial processes (such as lighting storms or hydration and dehydration cycles).
“This finding indicates that comet impacts almost certainly played an important role in delivering the seeds of life to the early Earth,” said Sugahara. “It also opens the likelihood that we will have seen similar chemical evolution in other extraterrestrial bodies, starting with cometary-derived peptides.”
The earliest known fossils on Earth are from about 3.5 billion years ago and there is evidence that biological activity took place even earlier. But there’s evidence that early Earth had little water and carbon-based molecules on the Earth’s surface, so how could these building blocks of life delivered to the Earth’s surface so quickly? This was also about the time of the Late Heavy Bombardment, and so the obvious answer could be the collision of comets and asteroids with the Earth, since these objects contain abundant supplies of both water and carbon-based molecules.
Space missions to comets are helping to confirm this possibility. The 2004 Stardust mission found the amino acid when it collected particles from Comet Wild 2. When NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft crashed into Comet Tempel 1 in 2005, it discovered a mixture of organic and clay particles inside the comet. One theory about the origins of life is that clay particles act as a catalyst, allowing simple organic molecules to get arranged into more and more complex structures.
The news from the current Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko also indicates that comets are a rich source of materials, and more discoveries are likely to be forthcoming from that mission.
“Two key parts to this story are how complex molecules are initially generated on comets and then how they survive/evolve when the comet hits a planet like the Earth,” said Professor Mark Burchell from the University of Kent in the UK, commenting on the new research from Japan. “Both of these steps can involve shocks which deliver energy to the icy body… building on earlier work, Dr. Sugahara and Dr. Mimura have shown how amino acids on icy bodies can be turned into short peptide sequences, another key step along the path to life.”
“Comet impacts are normally associated with mass extinction on Earth, but this works shows that they probably helped kick-start the whole process of life in the first place,” said Sugahara. “The production of short peptides is the key step in the chemical evolution of complex molecules. Once the process is kick-started, then much less energy is needed to make longer chain peptides in a terrestrial, aquatic environment.”
The scientists also indicated that similar “kickstarting” could have happened in other places in our Solar System, such as on the icy moons Europa and Enceladus, as they likely underwent a similar comet bombardment.
In case you need a reminder that the solar system was a harsh place to grow up, the early Earth looks like it was in the middle of a shooting gallery in this model. The map that you see above shows a scenario for where researchers believe asteroids struck our planet about four billion to 4.5 billion years ago, which is very early in the Earth’s five-billion-year history.
The research reveals the surface of the Earth repeatedly being churned by these impacts as the young solar system came together, with small rocks gradually coalescing into planetesimals. Much of the leftover debris peppered the planets, including our own.
“Prior to approximately four billion years ago, no large region of Earth’s surface could have survived untouched by impacts and their effects,” stated Simone Marchi, who led the research and works at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado.
“The new picture of the Hadean Earth emerging from this work has important implications for its habitability,” added Marchi, who is also senior researcher at NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.
In this dangerous early period, the researchers estimate the Earth was smacked by 1-4 asteroids or comets that were more than 600 miles (966 kilometers) wide — enough to wipe out life across the planet. They also believe that between 3-7 impactors were more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) wide, which would evaporate oceans across the world.
“During that time, the lag between major collisions was long enough to allow intervals of more clement conditions, at least on a local scale,” added Marchi. “Any life emerging during the Hadean eon likely needed to be resistant to high temperatures, and could have survived such a violent period in Earth’s history by thriving in niches deep underground or in the ocean’s crust.”
To produce the model, the researchers took a recent model of lunar impacts and applied it to Earth. The moon’s scarred surface helps them estimate what happened on our own planet, they said, because the craters provide an “absolute impactor flux” separate from any models that talk about how the Earth came together. Recall that erosion on the moon is very slow, providing accessible records of things that happened millions or billions of years ago.
When it comes to life on Earth, we’re not sure if it came from the outside (transported by comets) or on the inside. A new theory focuses on the “interior ” theory, saying that microbes could have evolved from non-living matter such as chemical compounds in minerals and gases.
“Before biological life, one could say the early Earth had ‘geological life’. It may seem unusual to consider geology, involving inanimate rocks and minerals, as being alive. But what is life?” stated Terry Kee, a biochemist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom who participated in the research.
“Many people have failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to this question. So what we have done instead is to look at what life does, and all life forms use the same chemical processes that occur in a fuel cell to generate their energy.”
When thinking of a car, the research team says, they point out that fuel cells create electrical energy through the reaction of fuels and oxidants. This is called a “redox reaction”, which takes place when a molecule loses electrons and another molecule gains them.
In plants, photosynthesis creates electrical energy when carbon dioxide breaks down into sugars, and water is oxidized into molecular oxygen. (By contrast, humans oxidize sugars into carbon dioxide and break down the oxygen into water — another electrical energy process.)
Now, let’s go a step further. Hydrothermal vents are hot geysers on the sea floor that are often considered an interesting spot for life studies. They host “extremophiles”, or forms of life that exist (“thrive” is the better word) despite a harsh environment. The researchers say these vents are a sort of “environmental fuel cell” because electrical energy is generated from redox reactions between seawater oxidants and hydrothermal vents.
And this is where the new research comes in. At the University of Leeds and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the researchers put iron and nickel in the place of the usual “platinum catalysts” found in fuel cells and electrical experiments.
While the power was reduced, electricity did indeed flow. And while researchers still don’t know how non-life could have transformed into life, they say this is another step to understanding what happened. What’s more, it could be useful for future trips to other planets.
“These experiments simulate the electrical energy produced in geological systems, so we can also use this to simulate other planetary environments with liquid water, like Jupiter’s moon Europa or early Mars,” stated Laura Barge, a researcher from the NASA Astrobiology Institute* who led the research.
“With these techniques we could actually test whether any given hydrothermal system could produce enough energy to start life, or even, provide energetic habitats where life might still exist and could be detected by future missions.”
We at Universe Today have snow on our minds these days with all this Polar Vortex talk. From out the window, the snowflakes all look the same, but peer at flakes under a microscope and you can see all these different designs pop up. Turns out that our asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is also much more diverse than previously believed, all because astronomers took the time to do a detailed survey.
Here’s the interesting thing: the diversity, the team says, implies that Earth-like planets would be hard to find, which could be a blow for astronomers seeking an Earth 2.0 somewhere out in the universe if other research agrees.
To jump back a couple of steps, there’s a debate about how water arose on Earth. One theory is that back billions of years ago when the solar system was settling into its current state — a time when planetesimals were crashing into each other constantly and the larger planets possibly migrated between different orbits — comets and asteroids bearing water crashed into a proto-Earth.
“If true, the stirring provided by migrating planets may have been essential to bringing those asteroids,” the astronomers stated in a press release. “This raises the question of whether an Earth-like exoplanet would also require a rain of asteroids to bring water and make it habitable. If so, then Earth-like worlds might be rarer than we thought.”
To take this example further, the researchers found that the asteroid belt comes from a mix of locations around the solar system. Well, a model the astronomers cite shows that Jupiter once migrated much closer to the sun, basically at the same distance as where Mars is now.
When Jupiter migrated, it disturbed everything in its wake and possibly removed as much as 99.9 per cent of the original asteroid population. And other planet migrations in general threw in rocks from everywhere into the asteroid belt. This means the origin of water in the belt could be more complicated than previously believed.
You can read more details of the survey in the journal Nature. Data was gathered from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the research was led by Francesca DeMeo, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
How did life on Earth originally develop from random organic compounds into living, evolving cells? It may have relied on impacts by enormous meteorites and comets — the same sort of catastrophic events that helped bring an end to the dinosaurs’ reign 65 million years ago. In fact, ancient impact craters might be precisely where life was able to develop on an otherwise hostile primordial Earth.
“This is bigger than finding any dinosaur. This is what we’ve all searched for – the Holy Grail of science,” Chatterjee said.
Our planet wasn’t always the life-friendly “blue marble” that we know and love today. At one point early in its history it was anything but hospitable to life as we know it.
“When the Earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, it was a sterile planet inhospitable to living organisms,” Chatterjee said. “It was a seething cauldron of erupting volcanoes, raining meteors and hot, noxious gasses. One billion years later, it was a placid, watery planet teeming with microbial life – the ancestors to all living things.”
Exactly how did this transition happen? That’s the Big Question in paleontology, and Chatterjee believes he may have found the answer lying within some of the world’s oldest and largest impact craters.
After studying the environments of the oldest known fossil-containing rocks in Greenland, Australia and South Africa, Chatterjee said these could be remnants of ancient craters and may be the very spots where life began in deep, dark and hot environments — similar to what’s found near thermal vents in today’s oceans.
Larger meteorites that created impact basins of about 350 miles in diameter inadvertently became the perfect crucibles, according to Chatterjee. These meteorites also punched through the Earth’s crust, creating volcanically driven geothermal vents. They also brought the basic building blocks of life that could be concentrated and polymerized in the crater basins.
In addition to new organic compounds — and, in the case of comets, considerable amounts of water — impacting bodies may also have brought the necessary lipids needed to help protect RNA and allow it to develop further.
“RNA molecules are very unstable. In vent environments, they would decompose quickly. Some catalysts, such as simple proteins, were necessary for primitive RNA to replicate and metabolize,” Chatterjee said. “Meteorites brought this fatty lipid material to early Earth.”
Based on research in Australia by University of California professor David Deamer, the ingredients for all-important cell membranes were delivered to Earth via meteorites and existed in water-filled craters.
“This fatty lipid material floated on top of the water surface of crater basins but moved to the bottom by convection currents,” suggests Chatterjee. “At some point in this process during the course of millions of years, this fatty membrane could have encapsulated simple RNA and proteins together like a soap bubble. The RNA and protein molecules begin interacting and communicating. Eventually RNA gave way to DNA – a much more stable compound – and with the development of the genetic code, the first cells divided.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. (Well, biology really, and no small amount of chemistry and paleontology… and some astrophysics… well you get the idea.)
Chatterjee recognizes that further experiments will be needed to help support or refute this hypothesis. He will present his findings Oct. 30 during the 125th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colorado.