One nitrogen atom, three hydrogen atoms. That’s all it takes to make the basic ammonia molecule. This simple compound was one of the most important building blocks for the origin of life, scientists believe, providing the nitrogen that is crucial to many organic compounds. They just don’t know for sure how so much of it could form under the conditions of the early Earth.
In a new study this week, Sandra Pizzarello and colleagues tie the ammonia surplus to one of the more fascinating theories about the rise of life—that some of its basic components seeded the Earth from space on board meteorites that pounded the planet’s surface.
Pizzarello’s team analyzed a particular meteorite found in Antarctica. Its name is Graves Nunataks (GRA) 95229, and it was discovered in 1995. But its important characteristic is that the it belongs to a class of meteorites called carbonaceous chondrites that are full of organic materials. In the lab, the researchers tried to simulate how those materials in GRA 95299 might have reacted when they reached the younger Earth.
Pizzarello and her co-authors subjected a sample of the meteorite … to temperatures of 300 degrees Celsius at high pressures in the presence of water to simulate hydrothermal conditions on the meteorite’s parent asteroid or on Earth. Under heat and pressure, GRA 95229 released almost nothing but ammonia, in amounts that constitute roughly 1 percent by mass of the type of meteoritic material examined. Its parent asteroid, the authors speculate, must have been rich in ammonia. [Scientific American]
Nick Lane’s book Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution has just won the Royal Society’s science book prize. The book chronicles the history of life on Earth through ten of evolution’s greatest achievements, from the origins of life itself to sex, eyes, and DNA.
The judges said that the ease with which Lane communicates these complex scientific ideas is what makes the book shine.
“Life Ascending is a beautifully written and elegantly structured book that was a favourite with all of the judges. Nick Lane hasn’t been afraid to challenge us with some tough science, explaining it in such a way that we feel like scientists ourselves, unfolding the mysteries of life,” said Maggie Philbin, chair of the judges. [The Guardian]
Instead of dumbing down the science, Lane’s words build the reader up to an understanding of evolution’s work.
Lane is a superb communicator. He knows exactly how much technical detail is required to provide satisfying explanations for the evolution of the genetic code, photosynthesis, complex cells, muscles and eyes, and his enthusiasm is catching. [The Guardian's book review]
Lane, a biochemist himself at University College London, believes in what he writes about. He studies and formulates hypotheses about the evolution of life for his job, and loves to communicate these ideas.
“Writing is my way to understand the world. I tried to get across the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know,” Lane explained. “It’s a thrilling tapestry that writing can take you across – you can ask any question you want, but there’s responsibility that goes with that.” [Nature]
Alas, this may be the last year of the prestigious book prize. It lost its sponsor, pharmaceutical company Aventis, in 2007, and has run out of funds.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: The origin of complex life – it was all about energy
Not Exactly Rocket Science: A possible icy start for life
The Loom: Book (P)review #1: Life Ascending, The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution
The Loom: Microcosm On the Longlist for Royal Society Science Book Prize (Along With A Dozen Great Books)
The Intersection: Everyday Practice of Science
Image: W. W. Norton & Company
The origin of life is surely one of the most important questions in biology. How did inanimate molecules give rise to the “endless forms most beautiful” that we see today, and where did this event happen? Some of the most popular theories suggest that life began in a hellish setting, in rocky undersea vents that churn out superheated water from deep within the earth. But a new paper suggests an alternative backdrop, and one that seems like the polar opposite (pun intended) of the hot vents –ice.
Like the vents, frozen fields of ice seem like counter-intuitive locations for the origin of life – they’re hardly a hospitable environment today. But according to James Attwater form the University of Cambridge, ice has the right properties to fuel the rise of “replicator” molecules, which can make copies of themselves, change and evolve.
Read the rest of this post at Not Exactly Rocket Science. And for more about the possibly frigid origins of life—and the implications of that for finding life beyond Earth—check out the DISCOVER feature “Did Life Evolve in Ice?”
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Image: Wikimedia Commons
Sponges are just about the simplest animals on the Earth. And they might be the oldest ones we know, too.
Adam Maloof and colleagues published a study in Nature Geoscience this week about their find that could push back the oldest known animal life by 70 million years. In Australia, Maloof says, the team found remains of ancient sponges dating to about 650 million years ago.
The prior oldest known hard-bodied animals were reef-dwelling organisms called Namacalathus, which date to approximately 550 million years ago. Disputed remains for other possible soft-bodied animals date to between 577 and 542 million years ago [Discovery News].
At 650 million years old, the sponges would predate the Cambrian Explosion—a huge blossoming of diversity in animal life—by 100 million years. These organisms would also predate an intense moment in our planet’s history known as “Snowball Earth,” according to paleobiologist Martin Brasier. It’s even possible that they helped cause it.
You can’t rise from the primordial ooze if that ooze is frozen. But about three billion years ago the sun was around thirty percent dimmer, meaning our planet should have been a snowball. The puzzle has haunted scientists for decades, but a study in Science has a new answer: It argues that a dense cloud of “fractal haze” enveloped the Earth.
This isn’t the first attempt to solve the early Earth conundrum. Carl Sagan, for one, had a few ideas. First, in 1972, he speculated that the atmosphere had ammonia which could trap heat, but later work showed that the sun’s ultraviolet radiation would have broken that ammonia down. In 1996 he tried again, saying that Earth might have had a thick haze, perhaps a nitrogen-methane mix, that blocked the ultraviolet but let in enough of the sun’s then-meager rays to warm the planet. Unfortunately, that too was a no go:
Early models assumed the haze particles were spheres, and that when individual particles collided, they globbed together to make bigger spheres. These spheres blocked visible light as well as ultraviolet light, and left the Earth’s surface even colder. “It basically led us to a dead end where we couldn’t have a warm early Earth,” said Eric Wolf, a graduate student in atmospheric sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the first author of the new study. [Wired]
There are millions of asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but yesterday attention focused on just one. According to a couple of studies in Nature, a large asteroid called 24 Themis is rife with water ice and organic molecules, and the researchers say that it could be more evidence that the water so precious to life on Earth came to our planet on board such rocks.
Two research teams took infrared images of 24 Themis, which is about 120 miles in diameter and was discovered in 1853. This asteroid has an extensive but thin frosty coating. It is likely replenished by an extensive reservoir of frozen water deep inside rock once thought to be dry and desolate [AP].
The team, led by Humberto Campins, says finding so much ice on the surface was a surprise; at the asteroid’s distance from the sun—3.2 astronomical units (AU), or just more than three times further than the Earth—exposed ice has a “relatively short lifetime,” the scientists write. As a result, the idea of a below-surface reservoir seems likely. (Icy comets aren’t nearly so close to the sun on average; Halley’s comet can come within .6 AU of the sun, but then retreats to a farthest distance of more than 35 AU.)
The “young sun paradox” just won’t go away. For decades, scientists like Carl Sagan have tried to resolve this mystery of the early solar system—how the newborn Earth stayed warm enough to keep liquid water—but it continues to bob and weave around an answer. In the journal Nature, a team led by Minik Rosing proposes an alternate solution to the leading theory, which relies on the greenhouse effect hypothesis. But don’t expect the debate to end here.
The problem is this: The young Earth received much less heat from the sun. Four billion years ago, a lower solar luminosity should have left Earth’s oceans frozen over, but there is ample evidence in the Earth’s geological record that there was liquid water — and life — on the planet at the time [Space.com]. So what gives? The traditional explanation going back to the 1970s has been that a powerful greenhouse effect, far stronger than the one we experience today, kept the Earth basked in enough warmth to keep water sloshing around the planet’s surface as a liquid and not packed in solid ice. In 1972, Sagan and colleague George Mullen wrote that such an effect would have required intense carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere during that period, the Archaen.
Here we are drinking coffee and tweeting and otherwise going about our lives, generally not giving much thought to the protection that the Earth’s magnetic field affords us from the solar wind. But that magnetic field is crucial for our existence. Now, new findings in Science say that this protective shield originated even 200 million years earlier than scientists had previously thought, perhaps protecting the planet’s water from evaporating away and aiding the rise of life on the early Earth.
To know about the planet’s magnetic field three and a half billion years ago, you need iron, which records not only the direction but also the strength of the magnetic field when it forms. In South Africa, study leader John Tarduno and his team found quartz with iron tucked inside that had remained unchanged in all those years. Using a specially designed magnetometer and improved lab techniques, the team detected a magnetic signal in 3.45-billion-year-old rocks that was between 50 and 70 percent the strength of the present-day field, Tarduno says [Science News]. Three years ago he made a similar find in rocks 3.2 billion years old; thus, this find pushes back the Earth’s magnetic field at least another 200 million years.
One of the building blocks of life has been found on a comet hurtling through the solar system, adding evidence to the theory that earthly biology began when comets and meteors bombarded our young planet and seeded it with the precursors of life. The amino acid, glycine, was found in a sample returned by the space probe Stardust that buzzed by the comet Wild 2 in 2004. The probe swept up particles fizzing off the object’s surface as it passed some 240km (149 miles) from the comet’s core, or nucleus. These tiny grains, just a few thousandths or a millimetre in size, were then returned to Earth in 2006 in a sealed capsule [BBC News].
Amino acids are crucial to life because they form the basis of proteins, the molecules that run cells. The acids form when organic, carbon-containing compounds and water are zapped with a source of energy, such as photons – a process that can take place on Earth or in space [New Scientist].
How life evolved from a mix of chemicals on the young planet Earth is one of science’s most enduring mysteries, which biochemists are attempting to solve by recreating the earliest building blocks of life in the laboratory.
Earth’s biology is based on DNA, which carries all an organism’s genetic information in a molecule that takes the shape of a spiraling ladder. RNA, the molecule that facilitates protein manufacturing, has a simpler shape–it’s a single strand, as opposed to DNA’s double strand–leading some biologists to propose the RNA world hypothesis in which RNA evolved first and eventually gave rise to DNA. But trying to imagine the assembly of RNA from its chemical components poses its own problems. How could RNA, which encodes proteins, first form, when proteins are needed for [its] synthesis? Now, scientists report that they’ve cooked up molecular hybrids of proteins and nucleic acids that skirt the dreaded paradox [ScienceNOW Daily News].
The hybrids they created could resemble the precursors to RNA, researchers report in Science. “It’s the pre-RNA world. There’s a hypothesis that says RNA is so complicated, it couldn’t have arisen de novo” — from scratch — “on early Earth,” said study co-author Luke Leman…. “So you need some more primitive genetic system that nature fiddled around with and finally decided to evolve into RNA” [Wired.com].