A new research study conducted by a team of chemists at the University College London (UCL) says that organic molecules vital to life may have naturally occurred inside seafloor hydrothermal vents. Surfaces of mineral particles that can be found inside seafloor hydrothermal vents were found to have chemical properties that are similar to enzymes which accelerated biochemical reactions in living organisms.
Hydrothermal vents or fissures are commonly found near the planet’s surfaces that are volcanically active, or in areas that tectonic plates are shifting apart, ocean basins and volcanic region hotspots. These seafloor vents churn out geothermally-heated water.
A discovery by the researchers of a vast amount of living organisms that have never been seen before were populating the extreme environment of hydrothermal vents. These organisms survived due to the chemical interactions between seawater and the hot magma produced by deep sea volcanoes. With this discovery, the team found evidences that the vital building blocks for organic life to prosper in Earth were already present millions of years ago and that the first life forms may have originated in the extreme deep sea hydrothermal vents underwater.
The energy produced from the hot and unstable environment of the hydrothermal vents and the abundant CO2 found in the water which is responsible for the presence of carbon, the basis of chemistry for living organisms, contributed to the emergence of life forms in the environment, said Nora de Leeuw, the team leader for the study. She added that the vents provided chemical properties that pushed molecules to regroup with other molecules.
Using computer simulations with laboratory experiments, the team imitated the kind of environment of deep sea vents and investigated the methods where mineral particles accelerated the chemical conversion of carbon dioxide to living molecules.
Co-author of the study Nathan Hollingworth said that the crystal structures and surfaces inside the vents acted as the means – they provided the environment that promoted chemical changes for materials settled within these vents. They behaved like enzymes, who acted as accelerators for chemical reactions. The carbon-based chemicals opened opportunities for more complex chemistry.
The research could be used to create carbon-based chemicals without extreme pressure or heat. This could be a great help in manufacturing organic plastics and fertilizers, reducing global warming.
This study was published in the Chemical Communications journal.