Hot vents on the ocean floor may have spontaneously created the organic molecules necessary for life in Earth's early days.
A recent study revealed how the surface mineral particles inside hydrothermal vents have similar chemical properties to enzymes, which are charged with the chemical reactions that occur within living organisms, University College London reported. These findings suggest vents can create simple carbon-based molecules such as methanol out of the dissolved carbon dioxide in water. The study helps explain how some of the key building blocks of life appeared, and eventually lead to the first life forms seen on Earth.
"There is a lot of speculation that hydrothermal vents could be the location where life on Earth began," said Nora de Leeuw, who heads the team. "There is a lot of CO2 dissolved in the water, which could provide the carbon that the chemistry of living organisms is based on, and there is plenty of energy, because the water is hot and turbulent. What our research proves is that these vents also have the chemical properties that encourage these molecules to recombine into molecules usually associated with living organisms."
To make their findings the researchers combined laboratory experiments and supercomputer simulations to look at the conditions under which mineral particles could catalyze the conversion of carbon dioxide into organic molecules necessary for life. The lab experiments replicated the hot alkaline conditions seen in deep sea vents. The simulations provided a "molecule-by-molecule view" of how the carbon dioxide interacts with the mineral greigite that is also found in the vents.
"We found that the surfaces and crystal structures inside these vents act as catalysts, encouraging chemical changes in the material that settles on them," said Nathan Hollingsworth, a co-author of the study. "They behave much like enzymes do in living organisms, breaking down the bonds between carbon and oxygen atoms. This lets them combine with water to produce formic acid, acetic acid, methanol and pyruvic acid. Once you have simple carbon-based chemicals such as these, it opens the door to more complex carbon-based chemistry."
The findings could also inspire a new method for creating carbon-based chemicals out of carbon dioxide without the need for heat or pressure, replacing the need for oil in raw material production.
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Chemical Communications.