‘When chemistry became biology’: looking for the origins of life in hot springs

  Last updated May 11, 2020 at 8:07 am

Topics:  

The hypothesis that hot springs may have been the ‘spark’ that helped organic matter turn into life has been put to the test in New Zealand.


hot springs_origins of life on earth_new zealand

Hot springs in Rotorua, New Zealand. Credit: Marisol Aguayo / EyeEm




Why This Matters: Learning about the origins of life helps understand our place in the Universe.




50 years ago, a meteorite landed in Victoria carrying many of the building blocks for life, including amino acids, nucleobases and lipids. These organic molecules formed when compounds in stardust, which had collected on the meteorite, reacted under low temperatures and UV light as it passed through space.


Many astrobiologists think the origins of life on Earth were kickstarted when meteorites carrying similar organic matter fell to the planet around four billion years ago.




Deeper: Building blocks for life on Earth got here much later than we thought




The big question is how this organic matter along with what was already on Earth – called prebiotic ‘soup’ – turned into life.


“We think hot springs on the Earth’s surface hold the answer,” says Luke Steller from UNSW’s Australian Centre for Astrobiology. “Their elevated temperature and exposure to the atmosphere allow for a unique process that underwater environments don’t offer.


“The cycle of dehydration (by evaporation) and rehydration (by splashing from geysers or pools) in hot springs allows small lipid bubbles called ‘vesicles’ to form around molecules.


“Vesicles containing the right genetic material could have conceivably been ‘protocells’ – the ancestors of modern living cells.”


Steller is currently collaborating with Dr Anna Wang, from the UNSW School of Chemistry, to trace when – and how – chemistry became biology.


Late last year,  Steller and Wang travelled to Rotorua in New Zealand with ABC Catalyst to recreate this protocell formation in a real hot spring environment.


“Almost any sort of chemical reaction could happen in a hot spring,” says Wang.


“If you combine that with the extra-terrestrial material bombarding the planet four billion years ago, they become the most chemically-exciting places on Earth.”




Teach This: Education resource – ‘When chemistry became biology’: looking for the origins of life in hot springs




It starts with a bubble


Vesicles, also known as lipid membranes, play a vital role in protecting the genetic molecules in our cells and, potentially, the ancestors to all cells.


“A bubble around some molecules is the first step towards an individual organism,” says Steller. “This entity, a protocell, could be capable of competing with other protocells and start undergoing Darwinian evolution.


“Without a barrier, there is nothing to separate the genetic material from anything else – it would be dilute and part of a homogeneous soup.”


Anna Wang_Luke Steller_UNSW researchers

Hot springs in New Zealand took Anna Wang and Luke Steller a step closer to the complex geological processes that may be the origins of life on Earth. Credit: ABC Catalyst.


The researchers were inspired by the efforts of  David Deamer and Bruce Damer from the University of California Santa Cruz, to test vesicle formation in a real-world lab.


Steller and Wang prepared vials of lipids (fatty acids) like those found in meteorites and RNA – a nucleic acid essential for life. RNA is theorised to have been present in early Earth.


Combined with hot spring water (containing dissolved minerals and salts), this mixture is an example of a prebiotic soup that might have led to the first replicating cell.


“When we first mixed the prebiotic soup with the hot spring water and submerged the vials into a hot spring, the high temperatures dried out the ingredients,” says Steller. “This process of drying down the lipids and RNA together ‘trapped’ the concentrated RNA between the lipid layers.”


When the soup was rehydrated – a process that occurs naturally in hot springs by splashing – the researchers saw vesicles containing concentrated RNA form.


“By having these wet-dry cycles, all the important organic molecules floating around gets crammed inside one little place. This can help the molecules interact and chemically react.


“Being compartmentalised, these vesicles suddenly have their own ‘identities’ and can start competing, increasing in complexity and evolving towards something life-like.”




Also: Earliest life found in ancient Aussie rocks






A messy laboratory


“Early Earth was a messy place,” says Steller. “There were many different minerals and water chemistries present, and clays bubbling around in hot spring pools.


hot springs_origins of life on earth_new zealand

The hot springs in Rotorua, New Zealand are the perfect place to study the origins of life. Credit: ABC Catalyst.


“There was a lot of splashing, lightning and different fluids and gases all getting churned up, boiled and mixed around.”


Travelling to Rotorua offered an opportunity for the researchers to ‘ground-proof’ experiments and show that concepts demonstrated in the lab are robust enough to stay true in messier environments.


“Conducting prebiotic experiments in clean glass test tubes doesn’t really represent what happened on early Earth,” says Steller.


“While we can’t go back in time, we have geological evidence that hot springs were present on early Earth. In some ways, visiting hot springs feels like going back to the source.”


The building blocks of life


Wang is fascinated by the first self-assembly step to life on Earth: where chemicals were able to come together and transition into biology.


“In origin of life studies, we ask questions like: ‘What physics were necessary for self-assembly?’, ‘What was the geological context that could have helped all those processes?’, and ‘What help did we get from outer space that could have helped catalyse this life?’


“All of these factors came together once – and it was so successful that it was able to persist through billions of years and evolve into all of life that we see today.


“There is shared chemistry to plants, viruses, bacteria, and us. Understanding how it all came about could help us build better microreactors for manufacturing biological goods, or to identify potential drug targets for disease.”


Steller is part of a wider team at UNSW assisting NASA in understanding how life may have been preserved on other planets in our solar system.


“The origin of life is part of humanity’s narrative,” he says.


“Learning more about it isn’t only beneficial for science, it’s helping us develop our understanding of who we are and our place in the universe.”


More Like This



A meteorite that fell on Australia 50 years ago contains oldest material on Earth


From outback to outer space – Pilbara rocks hold clues to finding life on Mars





About the Author

UNSW Newsroom
The latest and best news from the University of New South Wales.

Published By

Featured Videos

Placeholder
Big Questions: Cancer
Placeholder
A future of nanobots in 180 seconds
Placeholder
Multi-user VR opens new worlds for medical research
Placeholder
Precision atom qubits achieve major quantum computing milestone
Placeholder
World's first complete design of a silicon quantum computer chip
Placeholder
Micro-factories - turning the world's waste burden into economic opportunities
Placeholder
Flip-flop qubits: a whole new quantum computing architecture
Placeholder
Ancient Babylonian tablet - world's first trig table
Placeholder
Life on Earth - and Mars?
Placeholder
“Desirable defects: Nano-scale structures of piezoelectrics” – Patrick Tung
Placeholder
Keeping Your Phone Safe from Hackers
Placeholder
Thru Fuze - a revolution in chronic back pain treatment (2015)
Placeholder
Breakthrough for stem cell therapies (2016)
Placeholder
The fortune contained in your mobile phone
Placeholder
Underwater With Emma Johnston
Placeholder
Flip-flop qubits: a whole new quantum computing architecture
Placeholder
The “Dressed Qubit” - breakthrough in quantum state stability (2016)
Placeholder
Pinpointing qubits in a silicon quantum computer (2016)
Placeholder
How to build a quantum computer in silicon (2015)
Placeholder
Quantum computer coding in silicon now possible (2015)
Placeholder
Crucial hurdle overcome for quantum computing (2015)
Placeholder
New world record for silicon quantum computing (2014)
Placeholder
Quantum data at the atom's heart (2013)
Placeholder
Towards a quantum internet (2013)
Placeholder
Single-atom transistor (2012)
Placeholder
Down to the Wire (2012)
Placeholder
Landmark in quantum computing (2012)
Placeholder
1. How Quantum Computers Will Change Our World
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – What will a quantum computer do?
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Quantum Hardware
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Quantum Algorithms
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Quantum Logic
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Entanglement
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts - Quantum Measurement
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts – Spin
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts - Quantum Bits
Placeholder
Quantum Computing Concepts - Binary Logic
Placeholder
Rose Amal - Sustainable fuels from the Sun
Placeholder
Veena Sahajwalla - The E-Waste Alchemist
Placeholder
Katharina Gaus - Extreme Close-up on Immunity
Placeholder
In her element - Professor Emma Johnston
Placeholder
Martina Stenzel - Targeting Tumours with Tiny Assassins
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why are we all athletes?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Megafauna murder mystery
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why are we so hairy?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why grannies matter
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why do only humans experience puberty?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Evolution of the backside
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Why we use symbols
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Evolutionary MasterChefs
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - The Paleo Diet fad
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Are races real?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Are We Still Evolving?
Placeholder
How Did We Get Here? - Dangly Bits
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Climate Migrants
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: De-Extinction
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Nuclear Disasters
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Storm Surges
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: How the Japan tsunami changed science
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: How the World Trade Centre collapsed
Placeholder
Catastrophic Science: Bushfires