The Possible Birthplace of Life on Earth

I wanted my 100th post on this blog to be about something suitably epic; this article should do. It’s about the identification of a group of volcanoes in Greenland that may have had the right conditions for creating life 3.8 billion years ago, something that hasn’t been found anywhere else. 

From Science Daily:

The mud volcanoes at Isua, in south-west Greenland, have been identified as a possible birthplace for life on Earth by an international team headed by researchers from the Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon: Terre, Planètes et Environnement (CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1/ENS de Lyon). Almost four billion years ago, these volcanoes released chemical elements indispensable to the formation of the first biomolecules, under conditions favorable to life. It is the first time that such an environment, meeting all the requirements for the emergence of life, has been identified by scientists in 3.8 billion year-old formations…

Mud volcanoes are cooler than igneous volcanoes, and don’t eject lava. According to Wikipedia, “Ejected materials are often a slurry of fine solids suspended in liquids which may include water, which is frequently acidic or salty, and hydrocarbon fluids.” Sounds nasty. 

Serpentinite is a dark green mineral used in decoration and jewelry. In nature, it is formed when sea water infiltrates into Earth’s upper mantle, at depths that can reach 200 km in subduction zones. According to the scientists, this mineral, often found in the walls of hydrothermal sources, could play a major role in the appearance of the first biomolecules…

The team of scientists publishing this article focused their studies on serpentinites from Isua, in south-west Greenland, which date from the start of the Archean [4 to 2.5 billion years ago]. Dating back some 3.8 billion years, the rocks of Isua are some of the oldest in the world. Using isotopes of zinc as indicators of the basic or acid nature of an environment, the researchers highlighted the basic character of the thermal fluids that permeated the Isua serpentinites, thus demonstrating that these minerals formed a favorable environment for amino-acid stabilization…

Nearly four billion years ago, at a time when the continents only occupied a very small part of the surface area of the globe, the oceanic crust of Isua was permeated by basic hydrothermal fluids, rich in carbonates, and at temperatures ranging from 100 to 300°C. Phosphorus, another indispensable element to life, is abundant in environments where serpentinization takes place. As this process generates mud volcanoes, all the necessary conditions were gathered at Isua for organic molecules to form and be stable. The mud volcanoes at Isua thus represent a particularly favorable setting for the emergence of primitive terrestrial life.

So that’s pretty cool. However, as fun as it may be to point at a specific place as the origin of life, we have to of course keep in mind that this is just one possibility. Life is generally thought to have originated near hydrothermal vents, so those are still a possibility. It’s also hard or impossible to say that this location at Isua is more likely than others, since, as they say, those are some of the oldest rocks in the world; there’s no way to compare them to equally old rocks everywhere else.

Could still make for a good tourist attraction though…


2 Responses to The Possible Birthplace of Life on Earth

  1. O.R. Pagan says:

    Thanks Andre’, great post! In fact, I will forward the link to my students in a class I am teaching this semester “Origins of life and the universe” . Tomorrow will talk about the origin of life!!!!!!

  2. Student says:

    This sounds Interesting!

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