In an article published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience, Sverjensky and his team demonstrate that in addition to the carbon dioxide and methane already documented deep in subduction zones, there exists a rich variety of organic carbon species that could spark the formation of diamonds and perhaps even become food for microbial life.
“It is a very exciting possibility that these deep fluids might transport building blocks for life into the shallow Earth,” said Sverjensky, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “This may be a key to the origin of life itself.”
Sverjensky’s theoretical model, called the Deep Earth Water model, allowed the team to determine the chemical makeup of fluids in Earth’s mantle, expelled from descending tectonic plates. Some of the fluids, those in equilibrium with mantle peridotite minerals, contained the expected carbon dioxide and methane. But others, those in equilibrium with diamonds and eclogitic minerals, contained dissolved organic carbon species including a vinegar-like acetic acid.
These high concentrations of dissolved carbon species, previously unknown at great depth in Earth, suggest they are helping to ferry large amounts of carbon from the subduction zone into the overlying mantle wedge where they are likely to alter the mantle and affect the cycling of elements back into Earth’s atmosphere.
However exotic, deep Earth is hardly the only proposed origin venue. See, for example, Origin of life: Could it all have come together in one very special place?
See also: Complex life may only be even possible in 10 percent of galaxies?
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Abstract Supercritical aqueous fluids link subducting plates and the return of carbon to Earth’s surface in the deep carbon cycle. The amount of carbon in the fluids and the identities of the dissolved carbon species are not known, which leaves the deep carbon budget poorly constrained. Traditional models, which assume that carbon exists in deep fluids as dissolved gas molecules, cannot predict the solubility and ionic speciation of carbon in its silicate rock environment. Recent advances enable these limitations to be overcome when evaluating the deep carbon cycle. Here we use the Deep Earth Water theoretical model to calculate carbon speciation and solubility in fluids under upper mantle conditions. We find that fluids in equilibrium with mantle peridotite minerals generally contain carbon in a dissolved gas molecule form. However, fluids in equilibrium with diamonds and eclogitic minerals in the subducting slab contain abundant dissolved organic and inorganic ionic carbon species. The high concentrations of dissolved carbon species provide a mechanism to transport large amounts of carbon out of the subduction zone, where the ionic carbon species may influence the oxidation state of the mantle wedge. Our results also identify novel mechanisms that can lead to diamond formation and the variability of carbon isotopic composition via precipitation of the dissolved organic carbon species in the subduction-zone fluids. (paywall)
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