Solving a 3.5 billion-year-old mystery: Team determines life-producing phosphorus was carried to Earth by meteorite

Jun 04, 2013 by Vickie Chachere
This artist's conception shows a young, hypothetical planet around a cool star. A soupy mix of potentially life-forming chemicals can be seen pooling around the base of the jagged rocks. Credit: NASA

(Phys.org) —Scientists may not know for certain whether life exists in outer space, but new research from a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.

In an article published in the new edition of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, USF Assistant Professor of Geology Matthew Pasek and researchers from the University of Washington and the Edinburg Centre for Carbon Innovation, revealed new findings that explain how the reactive phosphorus that was an essential component for creating the earliest life forms came to Earth.

The scientists found that during the Hadean and Archean eons – the first of the four principal eons of the Earth's earliest history – the heavy bombardment of meteorites provided reactive phosphorus that when released in water could be incorporated into molecules. The scientists documented the phosphorus in early Archean limestone, showing it was abundant some 3.5 billion years ago.

The scientists concluded that the meteorites delivered phosphorus in minerals that are not seen on the surface of the Earth, and these minerals corroded in water to release phosphorus in a form seen only on the early Earth.

The discovery answers one of the key questions for scientist trying to unlock the processes that gave rise to early life forms: Why don't we see new life forms today?

" phosphorus may have been a fuel that provided the energy and phosphorus necessary for the onset of life," said Pasek, who studies the of space and how it might have contributed to the . "If this meteoritic phosphorus is added to simple , it can generate phosphorus identical to those seen in life today."

Pasek said the research provides a plausible answer: The conditions under which life arose on the Earth billions of years ago are no longer present today.

"The present research shows that this is indeed the case: Phosphorus chemistry on the early Earth was substantially different billions of years ago than it is today," he added.

The research team reached their conclusion after examining Earth core samples from Australia, Zimbabwe, West Virginia, Wyoming and in Avon Park, Florida

Previous research had showed that before the emergence of modern DNA-RNA-protein life that is known today, the earliest biological forms evolved from RNA alone. What has stumped scientists, however, was understanding how those early RNA–based life forms synthesized environmental phosphorus, which in its current form is relatively insoluble and unreactive.

Meteorites would have provided reactive in the form of the iron–nickel phosphide mineral schreibersite, which in water released soluble and reactive phosphite. Phosphite is the salt scientists believe could have been incorporated into prebiotic molecules.

Of all of the samples analyzed, only the oldest, the Coonterunah carbonate samples from the early Archean of Australia, showed the presence of phosphite, Other natural sources of phosphite include lightning strikes, geothermal fluids and possibly microbial activity under extremely anaerobic condition, but no other terrestrial sources of phosphite have been identified and none could have produced the quantities of phosphite needed to be dissolved in oceans that gave rise to life, the researchers concluded.

The scientists said meteorite phosphite would have been abundant enough to adjust the chemistry of the oceans, with its chemical signature later becoming trapped in marine carbonate where it was preserved.

It is still possible, the researchers noted, that other natural sources of phosphite could be identified, such as in hydrothermal systems. While that might lead to reducing the total meteoric mass necessary to provide enough phosphite, the researchers said more work would need to be done to determine the exact contribution of separate sources to what they are certain was an essential ingredient to early life.

Explore further: New research shows Phosphorus recovery from wastewater viable

More information: www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/05/30/1303904110.full.pdf+html

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User comments : 18

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Shootist
2.5 / 5 (8) Jun 04, 2013
Solving a 3.5 billion-year-old mystery


Editor: The word is meteor, or bolide, or impactor.

Meteorites are the fragments of both meteors and the impact site. These are what are picked up off the ground after the strike.
VendicarE
2.7 / 5 (9) Jun 04, 2013
As usual... ShooTard has most of it wrong...

A meteor is an asteroid or other object that burns and vaporizes upon entry into the Earth's atmosphere; meteors are commonly known as "shooting stars." If a meteor survives the plunge through the atmosphere and lands on the surface, it's known as a meteorite.

http://www.livesc...oid.html
geokstr
2.8 / 5 (12) Jun 04, 2013
As usual... ShooTard has most of it wrong...

A meteor is an asteroid or other object that burns and vaporizes upon entry into the Earth's atmosphere; meteors are commonly known as "shooting stars." If a meteor survives the plunge through the atmosphere and lands on the surface, it's known as a meteorite.

http://www.livesc...oid.html

After reviewing Wiki's page on meteorites, I see little difference between your definition and shootist's. But hey, any reason to call anyone who disagrees with you a "tard" is good enough apparently. I am pleasantly surprised, however, to see that you didn't call for the guillotine or gas chamber for him and anyone else whom you don't like, as you are normally wont to do.

Congratulations on the new kinder and gentler Vendicar(A, B, C, D, E, F...Zz).

geokstr
2.6 / 5 (10) Jun 04, 2013
Anyone who is tired of this calling people "tard" and "insane" and "stupid" and "liar" and literally advocating the mass extermination of entire groups of people who disagree with a given commenter, report EVERY offensive comment, and also use the "Contact" link below to write to the moderator. Only if there are enough complaints will a commenter have to move on to a new letter after his moniker, which will indicate the old letter has been banned.

Some of the most extremely vicious, odious and vitriolic commenters are all the way up to "E" already, and that doesn't even include the "Decarian".
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (9) Jun 04, 2013
Other natural sources of phosphite include lightning strikes, geothermal fluids and possibly microbial activity under extremely anaerobic condition, but no other terrestrial sources of phosphite have been identified and none could have produced the quantities of phosphite needed to be dissolved in early Earth oceans that gave rise to life, the researchers concluded.

The answer is right there, lightning strikes. It is due to the researcher's lack of understanding of the scalability of electric discharge that allows them to conclude such a thing. Electric discharge on a much larger scale happens on a daily basis within our solar system, such a realization will solve many "mysteries" in science.
no fate
3 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2013
The answer is right there, lightning strikes. It is due to the researcher's lack of understanding of the scalability of electric discharge that allows them to conclude such a thing. Electric discharge on a much larger scale happens on a daily basis within our solar system, such a realization will solve many "mysteries" in science.


This is true, where the conditions permit. Early earth....it's possible. It may have even been both.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (4) Jun 04, 2013
Other natural sources of phosphite include lightning strikes...
The answer is right there, lightning strikes.
The answer that they sought was not "What mechanism(s) caused the phosphite to form?" -- it was "What caused so much phosphorus to be here in the first place?". The answer to *that* question is not "an electric universe". Stay on topic.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (8) Jun 04, 2013
Other natural sources of phosphite include lightning strikes...
The answer is right there, lightning strikes.
The answer that they sought was not "What mechanism(s) caused the phosphite to form?" -- it was "What caused so much phosphorus to be here in the first place?". The answer to *that* question is not "an electric universe". Stay on topic.

And electric discharge gives an explanation of "that" question.
Sinister1811
2.1 / 5 (7) Jun 05, 2013
I've often wondered if life was delivered to Earth in much the same way. The theory of panspermia isn't completely implausible, and we now know that certain organisms (i.e. the waterbear) can survive the vacuum of space.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (2) Jun 05, 2013
And electric discharge gives an explanation of "that" question.
No, it does not, unless you are trying to say that meteorite infalls in general are an electric phenomenon. If you do think that way, regale us with a rigorous explication, OK?
katesisco
1.4 / 5 (5) Jun 05, 2013
Science tells us water was present from almost day 1 on Earth and I am thinking: how could this phosphorous from deep earth have been expressed? I am thinking core heating.
cantdrive85
1 / 5 (5) Jun 05, 2013
And electric discharge gives an explanation of "that" question.
No, it does not, unless you are trying to say that meteorite infalls in general are an electric phenomenon. If you do think that way, regale us with a rigorous explication, OK?

Well, introduce a charged bolide into an electrical environment (Earth's EM field) and an electric discharge is likely. There are however, other methods nature uses to produce electric discharge. The earth itself is a charged body orbiting within the Sun's EM field, as such electric discharge is likely. Due to the scalability of plasma phenomenon, extraordinary large and powerful electric discharges are possible, even large enough to create structures like the Grand Canyon and Valles Marineris. Such an event would produce the necessary amounts of phosphorus indicated above. When one examines the geologic morphology of the Earth, it's rather clear electric discharge is the most dominate aspect of terrestrial geologic activity.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2013
I was not asking how meteoroids might cause electric discharges; I was asking how electric discharges might cause meteoroid falls, which you seemed to be stating in answer to my question: "What caused so much phosphorus to be here in the first place?"

Your idea of large electric discharges sculpting canyons has been stated here before, but you continue to not offer support for it. You say that these phenomena can be caused by arcs and Birkeland currents, so you (appear to) assume that they must have been caused thereby. Without proper support, this risks being seen merely as the "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacy.
(Currents such as those should have melted a great deal of rock along with excavating it, but there are no deposits of congealed rock in the Grand Canyon.)

And, the question was not "How did a lot of phosphorus get to the surface from deep rocks?". It was "How did so much phosphorus come to be part of Earth's makeup -- how did it ARRIVE here?" Stay on topic.
Silverhill
5 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2013
P.S. -- If electric discharge is so dominant of Earth's surface, why are no such effects seen? (Mere lightning does not count; it can't sculpt canyons.)
Morelli
1 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2013
Why Nature needed and selected the phosphorus atom to be the bridge connecting the building blocks of RNA / DNA? And why there was no phosphorus on Earth before the origins of life? The Matrix/DNA Theory has an explanation, search on Google the article " Grande Descoberta Cientifica Sobre Origens da Vida Reforça a Teoria da Matrix/DNA" (Great Discovery About Scientific Origins of Life Strengthens Theory of Matrix/DNA). With this great discovery from the teams of U.W. and USF we learned that one of the missing ingredients in the experience of Miller/Urey is reactive phosphorus, however, there are other elements and mechanisms remain to be discovered,.Cantdrive85 posted a comment here saying that "lightning are the answers to the source of phosphite." Almost certainly because inert matter on Earth can be energized by the energy coming from space, but sudden ray of clouds could not drive the phosphite to solid new combinations with other materials. For this it was necessary energy containing information that led the phosphite to integrate in the formation of a system, ie, the formula of the Matrix.
Morelli
1 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2013
Science tells us water was present from almost day 1 on Earth and I am thinking: how could this phosphorous from deep earth have been expressed? I am thinking core heating.


From Matrix/DNA worldview you are pretty smart. The informations for driving phosphite to new combinations that leads towards systems formation comes from stars and planetary nucleus because they are germs of new stars. But, since phosphorus is atomic number 15, it is a bridge between the second and third waves of atoms formation seen at the Periodic Table, so, we don~t know if it is the begining or the end of a wave. If it is begining, the informations in shape of photons came from Earth nucleus, if it is the end, came from our Sun.
Morelli
1 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2013
The answer is right there, lightning strikes. It is due to the researcher's lack of understanding of the scalability of electric discharge that allows them to conclude such a thing. Electric discharge on a much larger scale happens on a daily basis within our solar system, such a realization will solve many "mysteries" in science.


Very good! Phosphite is an element that was missing at Miller/Urey experiment. It works as catalyst and bridge that should driven the aminoacids to formations of peptides. But, the Urey kind of electric discharges did not work as well, because the energy used at lifes origins should coming from our Last non-biological ancestor system, which was the entire astronomical system. (Ok, this is what is suggesting Matrix/DNA models)
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (1) Jun 08, 2013
@Morelli: Sorry, when I google "matrix DNA" all I get is sequencing methods. Can I assume you are trying to direct me to a crackpot site?

As for what systems are homologous with cells, Lane and Martin famously solved that problem recently. It turns out pH-modulated alkaline hydrothermal vent chemistry is homologous with the first chemoautrotrophs (metanogenes). It is certainly _not_ "the entire astronomical system", it is too broad to resolve a homology.

Why phosphates? Inorganic polyphosphates makes for excellent energy transfer molecules, and they can be used in cells for that even today. Hence they activate nucleotides naturally.

The question then becomes, why RNA? Thermodynamics has recently shown that RNA uniquely can meet the energy criteria for making replicators with ribozymes as only enzymes.

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