Sometime around 2.4 billion years ago, a nascent planet Earth underwent one of the most dramatic changes in its history. Known as the Great Oxidation Event, this period saw Earth’s atmosphere suddenly bloom with (previously scarce) molecular oxygen. The rapid alteration of the atmosphere’s composition was nothing short of a cataclysm for some early lifeforms (at the time, mostly simple celled prokaryotes). Anaerobic species – those that dwell in oxygen-free environments – experienced a near extinction-level event. But the Great Oxidation was also an opportunity for other forms of life to thrive. Oxygen in the atmosphere tempered the planetary greenhouse effect, turning methane into the less potent carbon dioxide, and ushering in a series of ice ages known as the Huronian Glaciation. But oxygen is an energy-rich molecule, and it also bolstered diversity and activity on the planet, as a powerful new source of fuel for living organisms.
The cause of this dramatic event? The tiniest of creatures: little ocean-dwelling cyanobacteria (sometimes known as blue-green algae) that had developed a new super-power never before seen on planet Earth: photosynthesis. This unique ability – to gain energy from sunlight and release oxygen as a waste product – was a revolutionary step for so small a critter. It quite literally changed the world.
The Chicxulub impact event was an enormous catastrophe that left a huge imprint on the Earth’s surface. Not only did it cause the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, it left a crater 180 km (112 miles) in diameter, and deposited a worldwide layer of concentrated iridium in the Earth’s crust.
But a new study shows that the impact also left its mark deep underground, in the form of a vast hydrothermal system that modified a massive chunk of the Earth’s crust.
The building blocks of life can, and did, spontaneously assemble under the right conditions. That’s called spontaneous generation, or abiogenesis. Of course, many of the details remain hidden to us, and we just don’t know exactly how it all happened. Or how frequently it could happen.
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.