Hydrothermal systems as environments for the emergence of life

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Abstract

Analysis of the chemical disequilibrium provided by the mixing of hydrothermal fluids and seawater in present-day systems indicates that organic synthesis from CO2 or carbonic acid is thermodynamically favoured in the conditions in which hyperthermophilic microorganisms are known to live. These organisms lower the Gibbs free energy of the chemical mixture by synthesizing many of the components of their cells. Primary productivity is enormous in hydrothermal systems because it depends only on catalysis of thermodynamically favourable, exergonic reactions. It follows that hydrothermal systems may be the most favourable environments for life on Earth. This fact makes hydrothermal systems logical candidates for the location of the emergence of life, a speculation that is supported by genetic evidence that modern hyperthermophilic organisms are closer to a common ancestor than any other forms of life. The presence of hydrothermal systems on the early Earth would correspond to the presence of liquid water. Evidence that hydrothermal systems existed early in the history of Mars raises the possibility that life may have emerged on Mars as well. Redox reactions between water and rock establish the potential for organic synthesis in and around hydrothermal systems. Therefore, the single most important parameter for modelling the geochemical emergence of life on the early Earth or Mars is the composition of the rock which hosts the hydrothermal system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)40-60
Number of pages21
JournalCIBA Foundation Symposia
Issue number202
StatePublished - Dec 1 1996
Externally publishedYes

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