Brewing up Earth’s earliest life

White Island, New Zealand. Researchers have found that a class of molecules called sulfidic anions may have been abundant in Earth’s lakes and rivers. Credit: © Alba / Fotolia

Around 4 billion years ago, Earth was an inhospitable place, devoid of oxygen, bursting with volcanic eruptions, and bombarded by asteroids, with no signs of life in even the simplest forms. But somewhere amid this chaotic period, the chemistry of the Earth turned in life’s favor, giving rise, however improbably, to the planet’s very first organisms.

What prompted this critical turning point? How did living organisms rally in such a volatile world? And what were the chemical reactions that brewed up the first amino acids, proteins, and other building blocks of life? These are some of the questions researchers have puzzled over for decades in trying to piece together the origins of life on Earth.

Now planetary scientists from MIT and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have identified key ingredients that were present in large concentrations right around the time when the first organisms appeared on Earth.

The researchers found that a class of molecules called sulfidic anions may have been abundant in Earth’s lakes and rivers. They calculate that, around 3.9 billion years ago, erupting volcanoes emitted huge quantities of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which eventually settled and dissolved in water as sulfidic anions — specifically, sulfites and bisulfites. These molecules likely had a chance to accumulate in shallow waters such as lakes and rivers.

“In shallow lakes, we found these molecules would have been an inevitable part of the environment,” says Sukrit Ranjan, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Whether they were integral to the origin of life is something we’re trying to work out.”

Preliminary work by Ranjan and his collaborators suggest that sulfidic anions would have sped up the chemical reactions required to convert very simple prebiotic molecules into RNA, a genetic building block of life.

“Prior to this work, people had no idea what levels of sulfidic anions were present in natural waters on early Earth; now we know what they were,” Ranjan says. “This fundamentally changes our knowledge of early Earth and has had direct impact on laboratory studies of the origin of life.”

Ranjan and his colleagues published their results today in the journal Astrobiology.