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How Did Life Begin On Earth? New Study Thinks Volcanoes Might Have Helped

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A new study looks at the first evidences of life on Earth, and volcanoes may have played a slight role in the process.

Often overlooked, life on Earth is one of the most majestic and incredible facets of the planet. Thus far, we have not been able to locate another one that's as habitable and hospitable to civilization than our own Pale Blue Dot. There is simply no other place in the universe — that current astronomical technology has been able to determine — that is able to sustain living organisms.

Sulfidic Anions

Researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks at one ingredient in the atmosphere that may have been crucial in the first time life formed in our planet.

They focused on sulfidic anions, which are sulfur-based anions. Sulfur is an essential element in life since several amino acids are inherently sulfuric. Being an anion, however, means that these molecules have negative charges.

Volcanic Activity

About 3.9 billion years ago, Earth's volcanoes were erupting all over the planet, bursting out massive amounts of toxic sulfur dioxide. This element ultimately fell to the planet and started dissolving in water. There, they were converted into sulfidic anions — more specifically, sulfites and bisulfites. The research states that sulfidic anions probably sped up chemical reactions needed to turn basic prebiotic molecules into ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which obviously is one of the most crucial elements of genetics and life.

"During major volcanic eruptions, you might have had up to millimolar levels of these compounds, which is about laboratory-level concentrations of these molecules, in the lakes," said Sukrit Ranjan of MIT, who was part of the study. "That is a titanic amount."

There was no previous research that looked into sulfidic anions levels in water during the Earth's early life, said Ranjan.

"This fundamentally changes our knowledge of early Earth and has had direct impact on laboratory studies of the origin of life."

Other earlier experiments led by colleagues of Ranjan claim that sulfites and bisulfites may have encouraged the formation of biomolecules. The team administered chemical reactions to synthesize ribonucleotides with sulfites and bisulfites. Compared with hydrosulfide, the previous method proved 10 times faster in producing ribonucleotides and related molecules.

Further research is needed to determine whether sulfidic anions were crucial ingredients in creating the first forms of life on Earth, but now there's very little doubt as to their existence during that time.

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