Researchers working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech, may have bolstered the case for a long-theorized process behind the origins of life on Earth. Recreating a laboratory version of hydrothermal vents present on the sea floor, researchers were able to produce an electric potential within the structures.The presence of electricity within the vents may have assisted in the creation of early life on Earth in a process described in the theory known as the “alkaline vent hypothesis.”
One of the essential functions that life on Earth must perform is the transfer of electrons, known as electricity. The electrical activity created by the ocean vents may have allowed the creation of organic compounds as well as providing a source of energy. According to JPL scientist Michael Russel, “Life doesn’t want to get electrocuted, but needs just the right amount of electricity. This new experiment confirms what that amount of electricity is—just under a volt.”
Russell is the man responsible for the alkaline vent theory and also theorized the existence of ocean vent “chimneys” before they were even discovered. These hydrothermal vents can range in size from inches to tens of feet and are made from minerals. The vents could have allowed for the creation of an electrical potential across the membranes that separate the compartments within their porous structure.
The experimental chimneys were constructed of the geological materials iron sulfide and iron hydroxide, and researchers plan to conduct future experiments using materials thought to have been present in Earth’s early oceans such as molybdenum, hydrogen, nickel, and carbon dioxide. Previous research done at the University of Tokyo measured an electrical potential in “black smoker” chimneys in the Okinawa Trough southwest of Japan, which are acidic rather than alkaline.
The experiments may also hold promise for research into extraterrestrial life, by using other materials present on those planets as well as other means of naturally creating electricity. The JPL Research team is part of the “Icy Worlds” team of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, and may replicate the experiment in a similar fashion for experiments related to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.