Lightning May Have Created Special Food for Earth's Early Microbes

By Allison Bond | July 14, 2009 6:29 pm

lightningLightning may have produced an important source of food for the planet’s first microbes: a rare form of phosphorus, according to a study published in Nature Geoscience.Researchers examined 10 chunks of sand melted together by lightning, formations called fulgurites, and found a high concentration of the minerals phosphite and hypophosphite in five of them. The soil surrounding the fulgurites contained only phosphate, not phosphites, suggesting that the lightning itself gave rise to phosphites.

“When lightning strikes, it acts like a mini smelter, and the organic molecules strip off oxygen from the phosphorus” [Scientific American], says study coauthor Matthew Pasek.The fact that microbes still have the machinery to digest these phosphites has long puzzled scientists, since phosphites are much rarer than other forms of phosphorus. Lightning forges about two to three tons of the [phosphite] compounds each year, barely enough for life to take notice. But modern bacteria still retain the ability to eat phosphite, which may be a holdover from antiquity [Discovery News].

The researchers believe that the relative abundance of various forms of phosphorus has shifted with time. That’s because most phosphorus is now released as granite and other rocks weather over time, releasing the molecule orthophosphate: a phosphorus atom linked to a hydrogen and four oxygens [Scientific American]. Today, human activities such as burning fossil fuels produces plenty of phosphites, a form of phosphorus that has just three oxygen atoms.

But the researchers theorize that before humans, lightning served as an important phosphite producer, feeding early microbes.“Early life may have used phosphite to form its key biomolecules, like RNA and DNA” [New Scientist], says Pasek. Life continues to rely on phosphorus–it serves as a crucial ingredient for teeth and bones, for example, and remains a key part of DNA and RNA.

Related Content:
80beats: The Rip Van Winkle Bug: A Microbe Is Resurrected After 120,000 Years
80beats: Better Than a Battery? Here’s a Microbe That Could Help Store Clean Energy
80beats: Deep in a Goldmine, an Ecosystem of One

Image: flickr / KM Photography

  • Pepito B.Degamo

    splendid discovery! This just shows how awe-inspiring Nature works. But who provides the direction? And where does everything come from?

  • Tourmalane

    Who? Hmmmmmm.

  • Nova Terata

    The 13th Doctor Who (played by “Blanket” Jackson) did thats who. The TARDIS got stuck in a ditch (again, I know) and the Doctor created life so that someone could help him get it out without dirtying his gold lame’ catsuit

  • Frankensteins bolt

    Awesome! I bet there was a lot more lightening
    back in the day too. Maybe a bit of that original spark got handed down on a cellular level, enervating us ever since.

  • YouRang

    Why would that original spark weaken (enervate) us? Did you mean energize?

  • I love Turtles

    Why would something as random as nature need a source or direction? And who are these people who know how it works?

  • Skeptikor

    The whole “who” business is a bogus question. You might as well ask “Which vending machine at Disney World did the first phosphites come out of?” or “What happened to the giant turtle that used to support the Earth?” Nature is astounding as is, without interjecting variations of bronze age creation myths or other casperitic fantasies.

    Casperism: n. The belief in unquantifiable or undemonstrable things, entities, forces or principles

  • zachary

    Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? – Douglas Adams

  • Greenprince

    “fascinated by religion.” […] “I love to keep poking and prodding at it. I’ve thought about it so much over the years that that fascination is bound to spill over into my writing.”- Douglas Adams

    Note how quoting someone doesn’t automatically make the person correct on such subjective issues.

  • zach

    Note how Greenprince thinks I was under the impression that I had ended religious debates forever by a quote, rather than simply displaying a view which I found poetically expressed.


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