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Hydrothermal Vents and the Origin of Life on Earth

Updated on March 28, 2011

Hydrothermal systems, as well as the thermal, geological, biological and chemical processes that are associated with like environments, have probably operated continuously since Earth’s surface became cool enough for oceanic formation approximately four billion years ago (Martin et el 2008, Schulte 2007). Their discovery revolutionized origin of life studies by challenging modern conceptions of components necessary for survival. Vent species have the genetic potential to grow and survive in an extreme range of conditions, many of which were transiently present as Earth evolved over millions of years (Thiel & Koslow 2001). Reactive gasses, dissolved elements and thermochemical gradients operating on spatial scales of meters to centimeters were all characteristic elements of early Earth (Martin et el 2008). Until about 3.8 billion years ago Earth’s surface was a violent and harsh environment, constantly bombarded with debris from space. As the Universe cooled and expanded the surface collisions subsided. The fossil record shows biological processes originated around the same time, approximately 3.8 to 3.5 bya. Oceanic temperatures at that time are estimated at 70 to 100 C due to heat generated by collisions and atmospheric composition. The oceans also would have been highly acidic due to the carbon dioxide-rich, oxygen-free atmosphere (Schulte 2007).

Volcanic and hydrothermal activity on early Earth was much more frequent then today. (Schulte 2007). Early hydrothermal vent systems would have been potentially chemically reactive environments with conditions favorable for the sustained prebiotic synthesis of the reduced organic compounds necessary for life (Martin et el 2008). Hydrothermal systems could have been where organic compounds were first synthesized on early Earth. Research has shown that amino and carboxylic acids can be generated in vent environments. The constant supply of energy from geochemical and thermal reactions may have provided the circumstances necessary for the origination of life. Vents may have provided a safe haven for life to develop away from the constant changes in atmosphere, solar radiation and surface conditions on early Earth (Schulte 2007).

 Implications for the field of astrobiology

The discovery of hydrothermal vents caused great excitement in the astrobiological community- geothermal energy had not been seriously considered as a source of potential energy for the biosynthesis and maintenance of carbon-based life forms (Thiel & Koslow 2001). Astrobiologists began to re-examine planets and moons in our solar system for evidence of geothermal or seismic  activity. Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons,  has become a popular focus since the tidal pull of Jupiter produces enough heat to keep liquid water under the satellite’s icy surface. Jupiter’s gravitational force may also provide enough heat to melt parts of Europa’s rocky mantle, creating appropriate conditions for geothermal activity and possible formation of hydrothermal habitats (Schulte 2007).

Thanks for Reading! Literature Consulted:

Martin, W., J. Baross, D. Kelley and M. Russell. “Hydrothermal Vents and the Origin of Life.” Nature. 6 (2008): 805-814.

Schulte, M. “The Emergence of Life on Earth.” Oceanography. 20.1 (2007): 42-49.

Thiel, H. and A. Koslow, eds. Managing Risks to Biodiversity and the Environment on the High Sea, Including Tools Such as Marine Protected Areas- Scientific Requirements and Legal Aspects. 27 Feb 2001, Isle of Vilm, Germany. German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, 2001. Print.

Do you believe there is life in the universe (besides on Earth)?

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    • Cheri Bermudez profile image

      Cheri Bermudez 7 years ago from Maryland

      Thank you all :)

    • elayne001 profile image

      Elayne 7 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      I personally believe there are many worlds that have life on them. We are just beginning to find proof of that. Congrats on your nomination. Well done.

    • Balinese profile image

      Balinese 7 years ago from Ireland

      very good

    • Purple Perl profile image

      Purple Perl 7 years ago from Bangalore,India

      Congrats Cheri! Excellent hub. I love the topic too.

    • Cheri Bermudez profile image

      Cheri Bermudez 7 years ago from Maryland

      Thanks Simone! The nomination was unexpected, the win even more so! I'm glad people are enjoying what I write :) The Top of the Class Contest is a great way to share academic hubs on a diversity of topics. I'm pleased to have been a part of it :)

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Congratulations Cheri Bermudez! This Hub won week 19 of the HubPages Top of the Class contest! It shall be featured on our Students page for the next three weeks!

    • Cheri Bermudez profile image

      Cheri Bermudez 7 years ago from Maryland

      Thank you for the feedback! I've often found the study of the origin of life fascinating, and love learning about all the different theories. I think HTVs are the best possibility we've found to date!

    • melpor profile image

      Melvin Porter 7 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Good hub. It was very difficult for scientist to come up with another approach as to how life probably might have started on earth until the recent discovery of life around the hydrothermal vents in the oceans.

    • Cheri Bermudez profile image

      Cheri Bermudez 7 years ago from Maryland

      Thank you. I agree. We are nowhere near understanding the intricacies of nature and natural processes. It's sure fun to learn though!

    • lightning john profile image

      lightning john 7 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting, the earth has many secrets that will be unveiled in time. Lj