Study suggests life began in serpentine rock

Sept. 29, 2011, 2:00 a.m.

After careful examination of the geology and environment of Earth in its early days, a group of Stanford geologists theorized that life may have originated above serpentinite rock at the bottom of the ocean. The theory was published in a paper co-authored by geophysics professor Norm Sleep, geological and environmental sciences professor Dennis bird and former graduate Emily Pope in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Deep sea serpentinite deposits, which form “white smoker chimneys” or hydrothermal vents, are sites where alkaline vent fluid interacts with acidic seawater. The nucleic acids that make up RNA could have occurred naturally in those vent fluids, making it more likely that complete strands of RNA spontaneously formed. Tiny pores in the rock would have allowed for the strands to survive without cell membranes.

The difference in pH could also have served as an energy supply for the organisms. Hydrogen forms when serpentinite is oxidized by seawater, and microbes can react hydrogen with carbon dioxide to form methane or acetate for chemical energy.

While hydrogen can still be seen bubbling off of serpentinite rock all throughout the state, evidence of membrane-less, rock-dwelling microbes have yet to be found.

“It’s conceivable that a biologist might get lucky,” Sleep said to the Stanford Report. “But I’m not holding my breath.”

— Ivy Nguyen

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