How Life Could Have Produced Most Minerals On Earth

While astronomers are trying to figure out which planets they find are habitable, there are a range of things to consider. How close are they to their parent star? What are their atmospheres made of? And once those answers are figured out, here’s something else to wonder about: how many minerals are on the planet’s surface?

In a talk today, the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Robert Hazen outlined his findings showing that two-thirds  of minerals on Earth could have arisen from life itself. The concept is not new — he and his team first published on that in 2008 — but his findings came before the plethora of exoplanets discovered by the Kepler space telescope.

As more information is learned about these distant worlds, it will be interesting to see if it’s possible to apply his findings — if we could detect the minerals from afar in the first place.

“We live on a planet of remarkable beauty, and when you look at it from the proximity of our moon, you see what is obviously a very dynamic planet,” Hazen told delegates at “Habitable Worlds Across Time and Space”, a spring symposium from the Space Telescope Science Institute that is being webcast this week (April 28-May 1).

His point was that planets don’t necessarily start out that way, but he said in his talk that he’d invite comments and questions on his work for alternative processes. His team believes that minerals and life co-evolved: life became more complex and the number of minerals increased over time.

Artist’s impression of a baby star still surrounded by a protoplanetary disc in which planets are forming.  Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of a baby star still surrounded by a protoplanetary disc in which planets are forming. Credit: ESO

The first mineral in the cosmos was likely diamonds, which were formed in supernovas. These star explosions are where the heavier elements in our cosmos were created, making the universe more rich than its initial soup of hydrogen and helium.

There are in fact 10 elements that were key in the Earth’s formation, Hazen said, as well as that of other planets in our solar system (which also means that presumably these would apply to exoplanets). These were carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, magnesium, silicon, carbon, titanium, iron and nitrogen,which formed about a dozen minerals on the early Earth.

Here’s the thing, though. Today there are more than 4,900 minerals on Earth that are formed from 72 essential elements. Quite a change.

Hazen’s group proposes 10 stages of evolution:

  1. Primary chondrite minerals (4.56 billion years ago) – what was around as the solar nebula that formed our solar system cooled. 60 mineral species at this time.
  2. Planetesimals — or protoplanets — changed by impacts (4.56 BYA to 4.55 BYA). Here is where feldspars, micas, clays and quartz arose. 250 mineral  species.
  3. Planet formation (4.55 BYA to 3.5 BYA). On a “dry” planet like Mercury, evolution stopped at about 300 mineral species, while “wetter” planets like Mars would have seen about 420 mineral species that includes hydroxides and clays produced from processes such as volcanism and ices.
  4. Granite formation (more than 3.5 BYA). 1,000 mineral species including beryl and tantalite.
  5. Plate tectonics (more than 3 BYA). 1,500 mineral species. Increases produced from changes such as new types of volcanism and high-pressure metamorphic changes inside the Earth.
The official poster of the World Space Week Association 2013 campaign. Credit: World Space Week Association
The official poster of the World Space Week Association 2013 campaign. Credit: World Space Week Association

These stages above are about as far as you would get on a planet without life, Hazen said. As for the remaining stages on Earth, here they are:

  1. Anoxic biosphere (4 to 2.5 BYA), again with about 1,500 mineral species existing in the early atmosphere. Here was the rise of chemolithoautotrophs, or life that obtains energy from oxidizing inorganic compounds.
  2. Paleoproterozoic oxidation (2.5 to 1.5 BYA) — a huge rise in mineral species to 4,500 as oxygen becomes a dominant player in the atmosphere. “We’re trying to understand if this is really true for every other planet, or if there is alternative pathways,” Hazen said.

And the final three stages up to the present day was the emergence of large oceans, a global ice age and then (in the past 540 million years or so) biomineralization or the process of living organisms producing minerals. This latter stage included the development of tree roots, which led to species such as fungi, microbes and worms.

'The Moon rising behind a couple of palm trees with cows grazing in the foreground. As you can see in the image,  the bottom half of the moon has a different tint due to the earths atmosphere.' Credit:  Tom Connor, Parrish, FL
‘The Moon rising behind a couple of palm trees with cows grazing in the foreground. As you can see in the image, the bottom half of the moon has a different tint due to the earths atmosphere.’ Credit: Tom Connor, Parrish, FL

It should be noted here that oxygen does not necessarily indicate there is complex life. Fellow speaker David Catling from the University of Washington, however, noted that oxygen rose in the atmosphere about 2.4 billion years ago, coincident with the emergence of complex life.

Animals as we understand them could have been “impossible for most of Earth’s history because they couldn’t breathe,” he noted. But more study will be needed on this point. After all, we’ve only found life on one planet: Earth.

The STSCI conference continues through May 1; you can see the agenda here.

NASA Researchers Find Brand New Mineral in Old Meteorite

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It’s a brand new mineral, and it’s from space. Researchers taking a new look at an old meteorite with a high-tech electron microscope have found a new mineral, now called Wassonite, in a space rock found in Anarctica back in 1969, the Yamato 691 enstatite chondrite. The meteorite likely originated from the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and is about 4.5 billion years old.

“Wassonite is a mineral formed from only two elements, sulfur and titanium, yet it possesses a unique crystal structure that has not been previously observed in nature,” said Keiko Nakamura-Messenger, a NASA scientist who headed the research team.

Wassonite now joins the list of 4,500 official minerals, approved by the International Mineralogical Association. It was named after meteorite researcher John T. Wasson, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

But there could be more unknown minerals inside the meteorite. The researchers found Wassonite surrounded by additional minerals that have not been seen before, and the team is continuing their investigations.

The amount of Wassonite in the rock is less than one-hundredth the width of a human hair or 50×450 nanometers wide. Without NASA’s transmission electron microscope, which is capable of isolating the Wassonite grains and determining their chemical composition and atomic structure, the mineral would have been impossible to see.

In 1969, members of the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition discovered nine meteorites on the blue ice field of the Yamato Mountains in Antarctica. This was the first significant recovery of Antarctic meteorites and represented samples of several different types. As a result, the United States and Japan conducted systematic follow-up searches for meteorites in Antarctica that recovered more than 40,000 specimens, including extremely rare Martian and lunar meteorites.

“More secrets of the universe can be revealed from these specimens using 21st century nano-technology,” said Nakamura-Messenger.

“Meteorites, and the minerals within them, are windows to the formation of our solar system,” said Lindsay Keller, space scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, who was the principal investigator of the microscope used to analyze the Wassonite crystals. “Through these kinds of studies we can learn about the conditions that existed and the processes that were occurring then.”

For more information see this NASA pdf. which provides more images and details about the Wassonite detection.