New research rejects 80-year theory of 'primordial soup' as the origin of life

Feb 02, 2010

For 80 years it has been accepted that early life began in a 'primordial soup' of organic molecules before evolving out of the oceans millions of years later. Today the 'soup' theory has been over turned in a pioneering paper in BioEssays which claims it was the Earth's chemical energy, from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, which kick-started early life.

"Textbooks have it that life arose from organic soup and that the first cells grew by fermenting these organics to generate energy in the form of ATP. We provide a new perspective on why that old and familiar view won't work at all," said team leader Dr Nick lane from University College London. "We present the alternative that life arose from gases (H2, CO2, N2, and H2S) and that the energy for first life came from harnessing geochemical gradients created by mother Earth at a special kind of deep-sea hydrothermal vent - one that is riddled with tiny interconnected compartments or pores."

The soup theory was proposed in 1929 when J.B.S Haldane published his influential essay on the origin of life in which he argued that provided the energy to convert methane, ammonia and water into the first in the oceans of the early earth. However critics of the soup theory point out that there is no sustained driving force to make anything react; and without an energy source, life as we know it can't exist.

"Despite bioenergetic and thermodynamic failings the 80-year-old concept of primordial soup remains central to mainstream thinking on the ," said senior author, William Martin, an evolutionary biologist from the Insitute of Botany III in Düsseldorf. "But soup has no capacity for producing the energy vital for life."

In rejecting the soup theory the team turned to the Earth's chemistry to identify the energy source which could power the first primitive predecessors of : geochemical gradients across a honeycomb of microscopic natural caverns at hydrothermal vents. These catalytic cells generated lipids, proteins and nucleotides giving rise to the first true cells.

The team focused on ideas pioneered by geochemist Michael J. Russell, on alkaline deep sea vents, which produce chemical gradients very similar to those used by almost all living organisms today - a gradient of protons over a membrane. Early organisms likely exploited these gradients through a process called chemiosmosis, in which the proton gradient is used to drive synthesis of the universal energy currency, ATP, or simpler equivalents. Later on cells evolved to generate their own proton gradient by way of electron transfer from a donor to an acceptor. The team argue that the first donor was hydrogen and the first acceptor was CO2.

"Modern living cells have inherited the same size of proton gradient, and, crucially, the same orientation - positive outside and negative inside - as the inorganic vesicles from which they arose" said co-author John Allen, a biochemist at Queen Mary, University of London.

"Thermodynamic constraints mean that chemiosmosis is strictly necessary for carbon and energy metabolism in all organisms that grow from simple chemical ingredients [autotrophy] today, and presumably the first free-living cells," said Lane. "Here we consider how the earliest cells might have harnessed a geochemically created force and then learned to make their own."

This was a vital transition, as chemiosmosis is the only mechanism by which organisms could escape from the vents. "The reason that all organisms are chemiosmotic today is simply that they inherited it from the very time and place that the first cells evolved - and they could not have evolved without it," said Martin.

"Far from being too complex to have powered early life, it is nearly impossible to see how life could have begun without chemiosmosis", concluded Lane. "It is time to cast off the shackles of fermentation in some primordial soup as 'life without oxygen' - an idea that dates back to a time before anybody in biology had any understanding of how ATP is made."

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barakn
3 / 5 (8) Feb 02, 2010
Günter Wächtershäuser first proposed the hydrothermal origin-of-life idea in 1988, and it has been an active area of research ever since. If the "soup" theory was overturned, it was long before this most recent paper.
Parsec
4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2010
What makes this different is that the idea is backed up with detailed thermodynamic and chemical arguments. Further, the paper is claiming that this is the ONLY way life could have evolved. Most research stands on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them. I certainly do not want to suggest that Günter Wächtershäuser isn't one of those giants.

This is another truly significant step forward in our understanding of the true origin of life on earth, and potentially how chemiosmosotic life could arise on other planets/moons/etc.
fourthrocker
4 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010
I have thought for a long time that the first forms of life still exist somewhere. The first life was probably pretty hardy and sooner or later we will find it if it survives. Life didn't spring up with DNA and maybe not even RNA. If hydrothermal vents were indeed the place life started, considering how little we know about them, it seems likely we may find the first form of life there.
jimbo92107
3.5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010
Chemiosmosis. Today, I learned a new word. I wonder what uses this principle could be put to. A proton gradient that powers chemical reactions might be very useful for self-assembling nanomachines.
Quantum_Conundrum
Feb 02, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Caliban
2.3 / 5 (6) Feb 02, 2010
Probably, the truth lies somewhere between the two- there is some fast and loose play with the terms, but one particular item I would point out is that, if "life" began around hydrothermal vents in the abyssal oceans, then where would be the pressure to develop photosynthesis in the eternal cold, dark, and hyperbaric conditions of the deep sea floor. This also ignores the fact that many of the other components required by life could probably only be created in the warm, shallow, anoxic surface seas of the Earth's early age.
nevermark
3.3 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2010
@Caliban,
You are right it doesn't explain photosynthesis, but that isn't a flaw. Photosynthesis would have come later as the microbes evolved to live farther and farther from hydrothermal vents, taking advantage of other energy sources. Evolving photosynthesis for energy production would have been a big step forward in their ability to spread to other environments.
Caliban
3.3 / 5 (9) Feb 02, 2010
Nevermark- that's true, but why are these guys at such pains to remove these developments to the deep ocean floors, when the same conditions(chemically) can be found at many sunlit, surface areas of the Earth. I'm sure that they have heard of Yellowstone, for instance.
Seems to me more like they are trying to make an airtight case for their reasoning -and their reasoning alone- by isolating this process, and preventing any possibility of "tainting" or interaction with any other possible genesis of any of the necessary chemical processes of life, much less actual living organisms, themselves.
GrayMouser
3.3 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2010
What makes this different is that the idea is backed up with detailed thermodynamic and chemical arguments. Further, the paper is claiming that this is the ONLY way life could have evolved. Most research stands on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them. I certainly do not want to suggest that G�nter Wächtershäuser isn't one of those giants.

This is another truly significant step forward in our understanding of the true origin of life on earth, and potentially how chemiosmosotic life could arise on other planets/moons/etc.

Have they reproduced any synthesis in the laboratory? The primordial soup theory at least was able to generate amino acids if this theory can't do that it wouldn't seem to have much going for it.
JayK
1 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010
The ATP transfer has been proven experimentally:

http://www.ncbi.n.../6469951
Skeptic_Heretic
4.8 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2010
Truth is there are most likely many pathways by which life could have arisen, including the hydrothermal vent theory, the comet seeding theory, and the primordial soup theory or perhaps a mixture of any of the above was necessary.

The question we will probably never know the answer to is which one started life here.

That's where I disagree with this paper. There is not a single pathway by which life must evolve. It's close minded and foolhardy to suggest that we are the pattern by which all things be judged.

emergent
Feb 03, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
emergent
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
when pre-earth was developing it would have been uninhabitable for quite some time. it would have been very hot, as it cooled it would have been putting material into what little atmosphere it had. this would have, for quite some time have been going on until enough material could block out the sun and further cool the planet. eventually developing dead body's of water. this pre-earth may or may not have been able to support life.
eventually a celestial body came into contact with pre-earth any life on that planet would have been destroyed and the same process would have began on what we now know as earth. the first safe place for life would have been in liquid water as it is the base of all life on earth. as soon as life was possible anywhere it would have happened. these conditions would keep reoccuring in different places but under the same conditions. also the largest petri dish was mother earths body's of water. it would have been stable in the depths first. continued...
emergent
Feb 03, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
trekgeek1
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
I can already hear all the people that reject evolution. They wont even notice that this does not address evolution or discredit it, but rather Abiogenesis. It wont be long until the young earth creationists find this and twist until it says what they want it to.
PinkElephant
5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2010
Neither "primordial soup", nor "black smokers", in themselves explain the oddly consistent bias in chirality of amino acids utilized by all forms of life on Earth. It is rather dubious that just by sheer chance, all 20 amino acids used by living cells, should just happen to be left-handed. So, space origins have a role to play, whether it be panspermia or just biochemical seeding.

http://scienceand...ery.html
superhuman
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
This study doesn't overturn the primordial soup, it only proposes a different recipe for it.
nuge
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
I'd like to think that life could have begun in deep sea vents, shallow pools on land, in the primordial soup or on meteoroids. It would be great if we can't rule any of these possibilities out entirely, as that means there would be more opportunities for life to begin elsewhere in the universe.
jj2009
not rated yet Feb 03, 2010
if this theory is true, doesnt that increase the possibility of microbial life existing on planets such as europa?
Caliban
1 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2010
Maybe- but it does require conditions that may only in part exist on "planets like Europa"- anoxic, hyperbaric, hyperacidic, hyperthermal, zero-light, and abundant H,C,S,N. Again, this is assuming that these are the only conditions under which life- or more properly, life on Earth- can be engendered.
If true, then we will be some lonely little dustmites, indeed.
Skeptic_Heretic
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2010
This study doesn't overturn the primordial soup, it only proposes a different recipe for it.

No this study doesn't overturn anything, however, the study itself must be incorrect as it states there is only one way for life to have come about.
NeilFarbstein
Feb 05, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Quantum_Conundrum
Feb 07, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
mabarker
1 / 5 (4) Feb 08, 2010
To trekgeek1: One dosn't have to be a creationist to see how evolutionists have no idea how organic life evolved from inorganic non-life. It's the ventists (Bob Hazen group) vs the (traditional soup) Millerites vs the Directed Panspermia guys. What do they all have in common? Bad science & an ABC attitude: Anything But Creation.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.3 / 5 (3) Feb 09, 2010
One dosn't have to be a creationist to see how evolutionists have no idea how organic life evolved from inorganic non-life.

Evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life but what happens in order for life to advance and become what you and I are today. The "hypothesis" of creationists is "An intelligence made all the species as they currently are and they are static." And we know that this hypothesis is false through many decades and in some cases centuries of observation.

Are you sure you understand the topic you're talking about?
donatello_
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2010
@Skeptic Heretic
Are you sure you understand creationism at all? Creationists do not, as you state, believe that "An intelligence made all the species as they currently are and they are static." Creationists believe that an intelligence made all the different "kinds" of animals and that there can be variation within the kind according to specialization of gene pools, possibly some pre-programmed adaptive mechanisms, and deleterious mutations. Kind is more likely to be near the level of family than species.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.6 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2010
donatello,

That is not creationism, that is a derivative of Intelligent Design and is still inaccurate as it states that all species as they are today were "created" by an intelligence.

Are you sure you want to try to debate this with someone who has given lectures on the topic?
donatello_
2 / 5 (4) Feb 09, 2010
@Skeptic Heretic
There you go using the word "species" again to describe created "kinds". If you do indeed give lectures on the topic, I hope you are more accurate with your choice of words when you do so. Are we to assume that someone who believes in punctuated equilibrium is not an evolutionist because Darwin was a gradualist?
JayK
3 / 5 (2) Feb 09, 2010
Form based cladists are almost always wrong and the idea of the "tree" is a bygone remnant that was tossed awhile back. Harping on about "kind" and "family" is really trying to make biological evolution a black and white science, when the reality is that determination of such relationships is much more demanding and gray area, for now.
PinkElephant
4.2 / 5 (5) Feb 09, 2010
@donatello,

I would like to take this opportunity to file some class-action complaints against the design committee responsible for the human body. I object to the following flagrant flaws: the tailbone, the appendix, the dangerous proximity of esophagus and windpipe, the fact that teeth only get replaced once in a lifetime, presence of discrete digits on feet, male nipples, body hair, body odor, and dangerous lack of redundancy when it comes to the heart, stomach, intestinal tract, spleen, and liver. Cartilage should regenerate, as should hair cells in the ear, light receptors in the retina, and neurons in the brain and the peripheral nervous system (not least, the spinal cord!) I would also like to lodge complaints regarding allergies, autoimmune diseases (lupus, arthritis, and the like), and the unreasonable requirement of extended sleeping periods. With regard to sleep, I also consider sleep apnea to be a serious oversight in design, testing, or both.

Pass it on, will you?
Dan_K
not rated yet Feb 09, 2010
Truth is there are most likely many pathways by which life could have arisen, including the hydrothermal vent theory, the comet seeding theory, and the primordial soup theory or perhaps a mixture of any of the above was necessary.

The question we will probably never know the answer to is which one started life here.

That's where I disagree with this paper. There is not a single pathway by which life must evolve. It's close minded and foolhardy to suggest that we are the pattern by which all things be judged.



Comet seeding theory doesnt explain how life developed, it just explains how it got to planet earth, leaving the original question unanswered.

IMHO live was born in a soup near a vent. It has the most evidence for it - all of the evidence for life via soup and all the evidence for life via vent both apply.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (3) Feb 10, 2010
@Skeptic Heretic
There you go using the word "species" again to describe created "kinds". If you do indeed give lectures on the topic, I hope you are more accurate with your choice of words when you do so. Are we to assume that someone who believes in punctuated equilibrium is not an evolutionist because Darwin was a gradualist?

Species is currently defined as the measure of deviation between two terrestrial DNA based life forms.

Do you have a problem with that or is the fact that terminology can change really throwing you for that large a loop?

As for your statements on gradualist vs punctuated equilibrium, have you run out of things of relevance to talk about? Evolution can be a sudden change or a gradual change. Models show the human eye could have developed in as little as 10,000 years. That would not be a gradual evolution, yet the theory still holds.

I think you're just having difficulty defending your stance.
donatello_
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2010
@Skeptic Heretic
No, I have a problem with your inability to grasp both my stance and my argument. You seem to believe that you can be the one to (re)define what my stance is, and so you argue only against a straw man. And my point in referencing punctuated equilibrium vs. gradualism was obviously lost on you.

@PinkElephant
You will have the opportunity to pass it on yourself - but I think you will find that optimizing for multiple constraints is quite different from optimizing for a single constraint. Moreover, you are passing over Romans 8:19-21 in your argument.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.8 / 5 (4) Feb 10, 2010
donatello,

I'm not redefining your stance. You brought your stance to the table as one of creationism, then you changed your mind and went with ID, and now you're not stating what the next one is most likely because you don't seem to be too well informed on the subject and the thousands of hypotheses out there about the origin and subsequent evolution of life. Your "point" wasn't lost on me, it was of no consequence to the discussion.

So why don't you lay out exactly what you think wihtout the pretense of a name and we'll analyze that.

The passage from Romans is particularly funny.
Effectively you think God made us poorly so he could reward us with heavan later. Hilarity. You're stating that an alleged all knowing creator would intentionally engage in shoddy workmanship to make his earlier work look better.
dachpyarvile
3 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2010
His use of Romans 8 is pretty funny considering the implications of whole of the chapter and of the rather early X-tian view of the teaching underlying that whole chapter and its meaning. I don't think he really believes it himself.

In the early X-tian view, it is that god wanted the whole of humanity to be screwed up and experience pain, suffering and death so that they would not wrongly attribute certain things to god and that they would appreciate eternal life (eternal life meaning in that early view that sons of god would not only be perfected and inherit heaven but would be made gods themselves)! According to Ireneaus, sons of god should first be men and then eventually be made gods inheriting all.

If people think I am kidding they need to take a gander at Irenaeus' books Against Heresies. That is a fun read for those so inclined and considerably enlightens on the old X-tian ideas alluded to in the whole of Romans 8. You have to wade through a lot of crap to see it, though.

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