a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

more on abiogenesis – Greenland and other rocks, water everywhere, and the how question

leave a comment »

rock formations that may or may not display signs of life

Jacinta: So I recently watched a Nova video on Youtube, which celebrates, through the geologist and mineralogist Robert Hazen, the relationship between rocks and life, or two worlds we tend to keep divided, the animate and the inanimate, and how they feed off each other. It was fascinating, and I’d like to talk about the effect of photosynthesis on the production of iron in the ocean, but first we should talk about those 3.8 billion-year-old Greenland rocks that we talked about way back when.

Canto: Ah, well, have you heard the latest? It comes from Quebec. Haematite tubes, similar to those produced by microbes around undersea hydrothermal vents, which could be up to 4.28 billion years old…

Jacinta: Yeah, couldabeen, wouldabeen, but I must say the video did argue for a watery planet much earlier than might have been expected, but no clue as yet as to where all that water came from.

Canto: You don’t buy the ‘it came from outer space’ meteor scenario?

Jacinta: I’m no expert but it sounds desperate.

Canto: We’ve found icy oceans on Europa and Enceladus, with probable hydrothermal vents, which we’re keen to explore, so maybe it’s not so weird after all.

Jacinta: Oceans of water?

Canto: Yes, and the Hubble Space Telescope recently observed what’s believed to be plumes of water vapour gushing out from Europa’s surface.

Jacinta: Interesting, but what’s most interesting is the diversity of these early signs of life. They’ve found chemical signatures in ancient microscopic zircon crystals, and ancient microbial mats as far apart as Australia and Greenland, and now, possibly, these very old haematite tubes, all very different from each other, and all very unlikely given what we think we know of the Earth’s early environment.

Canto: And they’re all connected with water, aren’t they? This is one of the mysteries to me, where did all the water come from – on Earth, Enceladus, Europa, Titan…?

Jacinta: Search me. It’s certainly exciting and promising though, NASA scientists say that water, chemistry and energy are the three essential requirements for life, and they reckon those moons have all the requirements. They’re hoping to send back probes to search for that life. But, you mentioned Titan. There’s an environment worth exploring, because, as the  NASA boffins tell us, it has rivers, lakes and rain, but it’s not water. So, to steal a phrase, there could be life there, but not as we know it Jim. And if we were able to find a diversity of life in our own solar system, what’s the likelihood of an almost infinitely greater diversity of life amongst the billions of other solar systems we now know to be out there?

Canto: I want to live forever! I want to have infinite time to explore these possibilities! I wanna be a time lord!

Jacinta: Yes but getting back down to Earth. We’re trying to pin down the first appearance of life here but it’s really difficult, and proving to be controversial, unsurprisingly. What isn’t controversial is that there is a window of about 1 billion years between the Earth’s formation and about 3.5 billion years ago when life must have started here.

Canto: Yes and you’re talking about the when, but the where and the how are likely just as controversial and certainly more important. You’ve mentioned Greenland, and I’ve mentioned the remote north of Quebec, and we’re talking about rocky regions that are difficult to get to and explore, and which have undergone great changes over the eons. So there’s plenty of geological argument about them as well. There’s no doubt these regions contain some of the oldest rocks yet discovered, but there’s a fair amount of doubt about their precise age.

Jacinta: Yes they’ve been much deformed over time, but geologists are finding evidence that they formed under the ocean, and that they show distinct signs of hydrothermal vent activity. As you know, hydrothermal vents have come to be associated with the earliest life forms.

Canto: Yes, the evidence appears to be indirect, and based on analogy at this point. Also, some geologists are tentatively putting the date of these rocks as far back as 4.3 billion years, and that’s very early in Earth’s history. I’m talking here about the Quebec material – what’s being said about the Greenland stuff, has it been verified as actual evidence of life?

Jacinta: Well all the reporting on that came out in August-September last year, all based on a paper in Nature, and I’ve not found anything more recent. The claim was that they’d found evidence of stromatolites, that’s the same features we’ve seen in rather a lot of docos recently, growing in shallow waters in Western Australia’s Shark Bay. They’re microbial mats that build up over time to create these mounds. Fossil evidence of stromatolites found in the Pilbara, also in Western Australia, are reliably dated to 3.5 billion years ago, and that’s the current record for earliest life forms, but the contested evidence of stromatolite fossils in Greenland, if validated, would take the record back another 200 million years, at least.

Canto: And these stromatolites evolved in shallow waters, right? Darwin’s warm, energetic little pond. Not like the microbes supposedly found in northern Quebec. Apparently there’s a tension between the fossil evidence, which generally supports the warm pond thesis, and the genetic and biochemical evidence which takes us more towards hydrothermal vents.

Jacinta: Yes, interesting, and anyway water.

Canto: Well we’re not going to be able to solve the water mystery here. Or answer the when question of first life. I’d like to change tack and think on the how question, surely the most interesting one.

Jacinta: Okay so this is where we turn to variations on, or more sophisticated elaborations of, the Miller-Urey-type experiments.

Canto: Yes – finding the recipe, as is emphasised in this documentary on life’s origins. In one part of the documentary, the story’s told about how John Sutherland and colleagues, workers in the field of prebiotic chemistry (a good term for googlers) have created a ribonucleotide, a building block of RNA, through manipulating plausible early-Earth conditions. This was certainly an exciting development, but progress in this field has been frustratingly slow. Sutherland’s work, and critiques of it, are given in more detail here.

Jacinta: Okay so I’ve googled ‘prebiotic chemistry’ as you suggested, and it’s led me to this article in Nature Chemistry which provides a good relatively untechnical intro to the field. Well okay, a bit technical here and there.

Canto: Yeah and it seems quite a small field considering the importance of the question ‘How did life get started?’

Jacinta: Sounds like they’re having trouble with funding. No pay-offs to the research, and it’s not as sexy as fundamental physics or astronomy. No techno-wizardry like LIGO or the LHC.

Canto: Yes, and you’ll only get really incremental advances. A lab-created nucleotide or two seems a bit of a distance from the beating heart of life to most people. And of course it’s impossible to know, when you do manage to create some building-block towards life from simpler chemicals, if that was how it happened here on Earth (if indeed life actually did start here rather than being transported from elsewhere).

Jacinta: A good last point. If all that water came down in a bunch of early meteor showers, that would seem to make life from meteors much more plausible.

Written by stewart henderson

May 7, 2017 at 11:21 pm

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: