The Fly in the Primordial Soup

Nathaniel Comfort | Nautilus

I arrived on the second day of creation. Laurie Barge had invited me to spend the day in her lab, modeling the origin of life. She is a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and, with her colleague, the pioneering geologist Michael J. Russell, a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The task was to make a miniature hydrothermal vent under conditions that simulated the primeval ocean, 4 billion years ago. Such vents are at the heart of a scientific creation story so counterintuitive it could hardly be true, yet so logical that in broad strokes it almost must be.

On the first day, Barge and her students had created the oceans. They started with distilled water and bubbled nitrogen through it to displace oxygen gas, which had not been present on the early Earth. We suspended two early Earths on steel stands in lab beakers inside a fume hood. Into the oceans, we added iron chloride, which turned the water the color of flat beer. I inserted a pipette tip into the bottom of each vessel and pumped in sodium sulfide to simulate hot fluid rising through breaks in the Earth’s crust. The sodium recombined with chloride to make saltwater, while the sulfur paired off with iron to form iron sulfide, which precipitated out of the solution and accreted into hollow chimneys. Similar chimneys formed at hydrothermal vents in the late Hadean eon 4 billion years ago, and they form still, from the abyssal seas to Barge’s laboratory.

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