Bleach a possible key to life on earth

Bleach a possible key to life on earth
Associate Professor Rowena Ball. Credit: Stuart Hay, ANU

Hydrogen peroxide - commonly used as hair bleach - may have provided the energy source for the development of life on Earth, two applied mathematicians have found.

The heat from ancient geothermal vents may have triggered the varying acidity that was vital for early life to form and spread throughout the oceans.

"The energy in hydrogen peroxide could have powered the living world before cells evolved," said Associate Professor Rowena Ball, from The Australian National University (ANU).

The research, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, solves a number of scientific puzzles about early life and how it emerged on Earth.

Scientists have proposed that more than 3.8 billion years ago, before DNA evolved, non-cellular life forms existed based on a simpler molecule, RNA.

However, no one had found a periodic energy source which could power replication and amplification of RNA without cells.

Associate Professor Ball said hydrogen peroxide and thiosulfate, which also occurred in the ancient oceans, provide the answer.

"They undergo a reaction in which heat and acidity cycle back and forth every couple of minutes, providing the perfect conditions for early life to evolve," she said.

"These oscillating reactions have been studied for years as a curiosity, but nobody realised that their fluctuating acidity and heat could have powered early life before DNA and proteins evolved," said Associate Professor Ball, from ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute and ANU Research School of Chemistry.

"All forms of cellular life are powered by varying acidity, known as the proton motive force. Respiration and photosynthesis depend on it.

"Now we know that the proton motive force is extremely ancient, and it was present before the evolution of cells."

As well as the variations in acidity, the reactivity of hydrogen peroxide was important for the development of life, Associate Professor Ball said.

"Hydrogen peroxide has just enough oxidising power to cause mutations every now and then, which would drive evolution," she said.

The shape of the hydrogen peroxide molecule also solves another puzzle.

"Hydrogen peroxide occurs as two mirror image forms," she said.

"Specific interactions of biological molecules with one or other of these forms may explain why biological molecules developed as only one mirror image form, something that has puzzled scientists for generations."

Associate Professor Ball and co-researcher Professor John Brindley from Leeds University brought together knowledge of the and thiosulphate reaction from organic chemists, who had studied the acidity cycles, and chemical engineers who had studied the reaction's heat cycles.

The result was a computer model with 10 or more coupled highly non-linear equations that took months to solve.

However, when the solution came, the continuing nature of the reaction cycles solved another mystery, of how life became independent of hydrothermal vents.

"Waves of acidity and heat could spread away from the original heat source, which would liberate life from narrow regions around hydrothermal vents," said Associate Professor Ball.

Explore further

Can bleach help solve the origin of life in the primordial soup?

More information: "The life story of hydrogen peroxide II: a periodic pH and thermochemical drive for the RNA world." Journal of the Royal Society Interface, DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2015.0366
Citation: Bleach a possible key to life on earth (2015, July 23) retrieved 18 October 2019 from
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User comments

Jul 23, 2015
Usually when discussing "bleach" (as opposed to a "bleaching agent") one is referring to sodium hypochlorite. Please be more accurate about the use of such references.

Jul 23, 2015
Regardless of the mis-nomenclature, this is an interesting hypothesis. It makes sense in a very simple straightforward way...

Jul 23, 2015
Without such examples their theory is meaningless and irrelevant to the facts of reality rhetoric.
Existing physical laws and finely tuned constants serve only to maintain established at the beginning by the Creator order in our physical reality. As God's moral laws serve to maintain God's order and justice in human society. Violation of this laws cause chaos and chaos leads to corruption.

Sheesh, Ren... Math is merely a descriptor. Our existence is simply due to "add and rotate", starting with the smallest proven particles.
You sound even worse than my Baptist grandmother, with your dogmatic tripe...

Jul 23, 2015

... Such attempts may be futile but practically useless.

Isnt futile and practically useless pretty much the same?

...Fundamental insurmountable obstacle to the theorists of evolution is that it can not give an example of a gradual increase in the information and the order in one physical system due to random events and existing physical laws.

If it's a closed set, there is no random...
Random is just a word chosen to represent what you can't comprehend. It's why you describe evolution as a series of random events - so you don't have to try to understand it....

Jul 24, 2015
"Random is just a word chosen to represent what you can't comprehend"

You can claim this only if you understand fundamental mechanisms in our physical reality.
But this is not the case.

Your certainty is admirable in it's nature, albeit somewhat wrong...
Such kind of knowledge if forbidden for not grown up children.

Silly rabbit, children oftentimes know it BEST...
It's the wanna-be adults telling others that that information is forbidden that more often screw it up...

Jul 24, 2015
Well, the result is informative if not very useful. (While modern cells all use metabolism cycles, they don't show cyclic behavior because of negative feedbacks.) And the paper is unwarranted assertive, typical of outsiders. (Mathematicians moonlighting as astrobiologists.)

But the upshot is the interest and up to date reference effort from Ball et al. Good job!

@ab3a: Dunno if the post has been edited, but is says "hair bleach", not bleach.

Jul 24, 2015
@Ren: Admittedly, mathematics as such is not empiricism. But they elaborate on a model so that it is testable. It is a good faith effort, and if not very useful also not wasted.

Re your ideas on oxidants, they are erroneous. Cells have evolved oxidative metabolism.

And as for you magic and (apparently) mystic beliefs, they are trolling on a science site. Your own myth tells you to behave properly ... or at least your organized magic & mystic sect would caution you to not show in public how awful it is.

Just to show how non-mysterious this is, the current main theory of emergence (which this paper sorts under) is under testing in this year's conferences. This is now normal science, and we seem to know how life emerged, it looks good.

If you want to make bad faith attacks on fledgling science (nominally, but not really), I would direct you to the wasted efforts of creationists. They have yet to publish a paper that inserts their preferred magic into testable theories. =D

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