“Our overall message is, if you think the origin of life required fixed nitrogen, as many people do, then it’s tough to have the origin of life happen in the ocean,” says lead author Sukrit Ranjan, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “It’s much easier to have that happen in a pond.”
Ranjan and his colleagues have published their results today in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems. The paper’s co-authors are Andrew Babbin, the Doherty Assistant Professor in Ocean Utilization in EAPS, along with Zoe Todd and Dimitar Sasselov of Harvard University, and Paul Rimmer at Cambridge University.
They think lightning played a role:
“Lightning is like a really intense bomb going off,” Ranjan says. “It produces enough energy that it breaks that triple bond in our atmospheric nitrogen gas, to produce nitrogenous oxides that can then rain down into water bodies.” Scientists believe that there could have been enough lightning crackling through the early atmosphere to produce an abundance of nitrogenous oxides to fuel the origin of life in the ocean. Ranjan says scientists have assumed that this supply of lightning-generated nitrogenous oxides was relatively stable once the compounds entered the oceans…
Ranjan says the more shallow the pond, the greater the chance nitrogenous oxides would have had to interact with other molecules, and particularly RNA, to catalyze the first living organisms. “These ponds could have been from 10 to 100 centimeters deep, with a surface area of tens of square meters or larger,” Ranjan says. “They would have been similar to Don Juan Pond in Antarctica today, which has a summer seasonal depth of about 10 centimetres.” …
The debate over whether life originated in ponds versus oceans is not quite resolved, but Ranjan says the new study provides one convincing piece of evidence for the former. “This discipline is less like knocking over a row of dominos, and more like building a cathedral,” Ranjan says. “There’s no real ‘aha’ moment. It’s more like building up patiently one observation after another, and the picture that’s emerging is that overall, many prebiotic synthesis pathways seem to be chemically easier in ponds than oceans.” Paper. (paywall) – Sukrit Ranjan, Zoe R. Todd, Paul B. Rimmer, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Andrew R. Babbin. Nitrogen Oxide Concentrations in Natural Waters on Early Earth. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 2019; DOI: 10.1029/2018GC008082 More.
The researcher’s analogy is interesting (more like building a cathedral than knocking over a row of dominos). If the origin of life were like knocking over a row of dominos, life would be coming into existence ex nihilo, easily and often. That is assuredly not what we find.
On the other hand, no master architect ever built cathedral without a prior plan and a meaning to express — in this case a theology. What meaning does Ranjan think life is trying to express?
See also: NASA Recreates The Origin Of Life And It’s Totally Shocking What’s shocking in this case is the hype.
Ancient Cataclysms And Modern Conflicts In Origin Of Life Studies
The Science Fictions series at your fingertips – origin of life What we do and don’t know about the origin of life.
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