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4-20-12 ABR hydrothermal vents1

Hydrothermal Vents and the Origin of Life

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EXCERPT In the 1970’s, geologists discovered hydrothermal vents, holes in the ocean floor that spew out scalding hot water. They subsequently learned that these seemingly inhospitable environments actually permitted the existence of primitive life forms. Some scientists believe that such conditions, and not the “warm little pond” theorized by Darwin, might have been the setting for the formation of the first life on Earth.

According to the October 2010 issue of the journal Smithsonian, mineralogist Bob Hazen and his colleagues at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, are using “pressure bombs,” small metal cylinders that compress and heat minerals to temperatures and pressures equivalent to those at the Earth’s core, “to decipher nothing less than the origins of life” (Lucidon 2010: 49).

In his first “bomb,” Hazen encased a tiny amount of water, a chemical called pyruvate, and a powder that produces carbon dioxide, in 3 non-reactive gold capsules. He heated the capsules to 480 degrees and pressed down on them at 2,000 atmospheres. Smithsonian reported the results:

When he took the capsules out two hours later, the contents had turned into tens of thousands of different compounds. In later experiments, he combined nitrogen, ammonia and other molecules plausibly present on the early earth. In these experiments, Hazen and his colleagues created all sorts of organic molecules, including amino acids and sugars — the stuff of life (ibid. 50).

Further research by Hazen showed that “the basic molecules of life…are able to form in all sorts of places: near hydrothermal vents, volcanoes, even on meteorites” (ibid.). Because of this, Hazen doubts the reigning theory of origins, which maintains that the first life began, as Darwin wrote in 1871, “in some warm little pond” (ibid.). More specifically, scientists believe that the first chemicals that combined to form life were not in a little pond, but floating freely in the ocean, and that by pure chance, over a vast amount of time, they came together and eventually formed the first life.

The Smithsonian article pointed out the difficulty with this scenario: “How did the right building blocks [of life] get incorporated? Amino acids come in multiple forms, but only some are used by living things to form proteins. How did they find each other?” (ibid.). Hazen voiced similar doubts:

We’ve got a prebiotic ocean and down in the ocean floor, you’ve got rocks. And basically there’s molecules here that are floating around in solution, but it’s a very dilute soup. So the chances of a molecule over here bumping into this one, and then actually a chemical reaction going on to form some kind of larger structure, [are] just infinitesimally small (ibid. 50-51)….

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