NASA Looks For the Origin of Life at the Bottom of the Ocean

    January 17, 2013

NASA this week revealed that it is simulating the conditions believed to have created the organic molecules that may have been the precursors to life on Earth.

An experiment at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is mimicking the conditions observed at hydrothermal vents in the deepest parts of the ocean. Glass tubes, thin barrels, and valves are sending carbon dioxide-rich ocean water and alkaline fluid through a sample of rock that simulates ancient volcanic ocean crust. The experiment runs at 100 times the pressure on the Earth’s surface and at around 90 degrees Celsius (200 degrees Fahrenheit) A detector system detects the compounds coming out of the set-up, keeping watch for organic compounds such as ethane and methane.

“What we’re trying to do is to climb down and create the conditions for the very first steps to the beginning of life as we know it,” said Mike Russell, leader on the experiment and a senior geologist with the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Icy Worlds team at JPL. “That’s the hard part.”

The Icy Worlds project is trying to learn more about potentially habitable environments like Mars, as well as liquid water environments on icy objects such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus, where signs of water ice have been found.

The hydrothermal vent experiments are based on Russell’s 1989 theory that life on Earth may have begun at alkaline hydrothermal vents some 4 billion years ago. The carbon dioxide at these vents could have supplied the carbon needes to produce organic molecules. Evidence for this was found in 2000, when a vent showing signs of producing organic molecules was found in the Atlantic Ocean.

“If this ocean experiment is successful, scientists would have a better handle on where to look for the building blocks of life on Earth and beyond, and what signatures we should be looking for of life and of habitable environments in the solar system,” said Isik Kanik, Icy Worlds Principal Investigator.

(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)