Piecing Together The Narrative of Evolution

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A reconstruction of the frond-like sea creature Stromatoveris psygmoglena, which lived during the Cambrian explosion of life forms on Earth.  Newfound fossils of Stromatoveris were compared with Ediacaran fossils, and researchers concluded they were all very early animals and that this animal group survived the mass extinction event that occurred between the Ediacaran and Cambrian periods. (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill.)

An essential characteristic of life is that it evolves. Whether on Earth or potentially Mars, Europa or distant exoplanets, we can assume that whatever life might be present has the capacity and the need to change.

Evolution is intimately tied to the origin-of-life question, which this column often explores.  Having more answers regarding how life might have started on Earth can no doubt help the search for life elsewhere, just as finding life elsewhere could help understand how it started here.

The connection between evolution and exoplanets has an added and essential dimension when it comes to hunting for signatures of distant extraterrestrial life.

Searching for a planet with lots of oxygen and other atmospheric compound in disequilibrium (as on Earth) is certainly a way forward. But it is sobering to realize that those biosignatures would not have been detectable on Earth for most of the time that life has been present.  That’s because large concentrations of oxygen are a relative newcomer to our planet,  product of biological evolution.

With all this in mind, it seems both interesting and useful to look at the work of a researcher studying the fossil record to better understand a particular transition on Earth — the one from simpler organisms to multicellular creatures that can be considered animals.

The surprising, large transitional life of the Ediacaran period, which just preceded the Cambrian explosion of complex life. This grouping is termed the Ediacara assemblage, and existed late in the period.  (John Sibbick)

The researcher is Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill of the University of Cambridge, who I first met at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo, a unique place where scientists research the origin of Earth and of life on Earth.

She had been included in a group of twelve two-year fellows recruited from around the world who specialized in fields ranging from the microbiology of extreme environments to the current and past dynamics of the deep Earth and the digital world of chemo informatics.  And then there was Hoyal Cuthill, whose field is paleobiology, with a heavy emphasis on evolution.

Now Hoyal Cuthill has published a paper in the journal Paleontology that describes findings in the fossil record that shed light on that transition from less complex organisms like bacteria, algae and fungi to  to animals.

Her specialty is the Ediacaran period some 635 to 541 million years ago.  This transitional period came after a snowball Earth event and was followed by the Cambrian explosion, when ocean life of all sorts grew and changed at an unprecedented rate.  But as she and others have found, the Ediacaran also had large and unique lifeforms, and she is working to make sense of them.

She described her work and findings more specifically as follows:

“When did animals originate? What were the bizarre, early fossils known as the Ediacaran biota?

“We show that both questions are answered by a frond-like sea creature called Stromatoveris psygmoglena known from exceptionally preserved, Cambrian fossils from Chengjiang County, China.

“Originally described from only eight specimens, we examined over 200 new fossils since discovered by researchers from Northwest University (in Xian.) Stromatoveris was compared to earlier Ediacaran fossils in a computer analysis of anatomy and evolutionary relationships.

“This showed that Stromatoveris and seven key members of the Ediacaran biota share detailed anatomical similarities, including multiple, radiating, branched fronds that unite them as a phylum of early animals, originating by the Ediacaran Period and surviving into the early Cambrian.”

Fossil of Stromatoveris psygmoglena, turned on its side.  New research suggests that Stromatoveris and related Ediacaran lifeforms could be among the earliest creatures that can be described as an animal. Ediacaran fossils have been found from Australia to arctic Siberia, Canada to southern Africa.  (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill)

 

Dickinsonia is a genus of iconic fossils of the Ediacaran biota. While a bilaterian affinity had been previously suggested by some researchers, this study suggests that it is closely related to other members of the Ediacaran biota as well as Cambrian Stromatoveris.  (Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill)

 

More broadly, Hoyal Cuthill told me that “the story of the origin of life and the evolution of life are so interwoven.”

“Looking back as far as we can, we see important patterns emerging from the very start.  All things learn.  If possible, they add to complexity… And evolution does not result in a complete replacement.  When transitions happen -– even big ones – important life patterns continue.  And so do some creatures.”

This continuity within change is what she has focused on, in the transitional Proterozoic Eon when bacterial and plant life evolved into the more complex ocean animal life of the Cambrian explosion.

She has traveled the world and scoured the fossil record to come up with this conclusion:  that creatures that can be called “animals” existed at least as far back as the early days of the Ediacaran, some 630 million years ago, when many macro-fossils quite suddenly appeared following that early epoch of global freezing.

The Ediacaran period gets its name from the Ediacara Hills in Australia, where famous fossils of this age were found. Known also as the Vendian, the Ediacaran was the final stage of Pre-Cambrian time. During this time, large (up to meter-sized) organisms, often shaped like fronds with holdfast discs, lived on thick mats of bacteria which, unlike today, coated the sea floor. The slimy mats acted as a barrier between the water above and the sediments below, preventing oxygen from reaching under the sea floor and making it less habitable.

During this time, large (up to meter-sized) organisms, often shaped like discs or fronds,  lived on or in shallow horizontal burrows beneath thick mats of bacteria which, unlike today, coated the sea floor. The slimy mats acted as a barrier between the water above and the sediments below, preventing oxygen from reaching under the sea floor and turning it largely uninhabitable.

And then when the Cambrian explosion occurred beginning some 540 million years ago, most of those lifeforms were thought to have gone extinct. Some paleobiologists hold that Earth’s first mass extinction actually took place during this period, when newly evolved animals transformed the environment.

Biota from the Ediacaran period through the Cambrian explosion. (Proceedings of the Royal Academy; B M. Gabriela Mángano, Luis A. Buatois)

Hoyal Cuthill says that her research leads her to a very different view: that there was a broad but not mass extinction, and that Ediacaran animals survived well after the Cambrian Explosion.

And in the journal paper published this week, Hoyal Cuthill and co-author Jian Han of Northwest University in Xian present fossil evidence from southern China of Cambrian creatures that she argues are unquestionably animal.

She said they have characteristics such as radial symmetry, differentiated bodies and an animal type organization. These fossils date from the early Cambrian, she said, yet they are similar in important ways to creatures found during the earlier Ediacaran period.

In other words, this group of animals not only persisted from the onset of the Ediacaran period, but also after the often-invoked mass extinction that came along with the Cambrian Explosion.

Jennifer Hoyal Cuthill, paleobiologist with a focus on Ediacaran period when life began to grow substantially in size. (Julieta Sarmiento Photography).

Hoyal Cuthill says that while the fossil record from the Ediacaran is sparse, flora and fauna are known to have included some of the oldest definite multicellular organisms. The organisms, she said, resembled fractal fronds but bear little resemblance to modern lifeforms.

The world’s first ever burrowing animals also evolved in the Ediacaran, though we don’t know what they looked like. The only fossils that have been found are of the burrows themselves, not the creatures that made them.

In an earlier paper, she described how and why many of the Ediacaran lifeforms got as large as they did.

“All organisms need nutrients simply to survive and grow, but nutrients can also dictate body size and shape.

“During the Proterozoic, there seem to have been major changes in the Earth’s oceans which may have triggered this… growth to the macro-scale. These include increases in oxygen and, potentially, other nutrients such as organic carbon.”

In other words, the surrounding atmosphere, oceans, perhaps reversing magnetic fields, tectonic and volcanic activity and the resulting menu of chemical compounds available and climatic conditions are essential drivers of biological evolution.  Just as they are now considered some of the important indicators of a potentially habitable exoplanet.

And on a currently far more fanciful note, wouldn’t it be wonderful if scientists could some day not only find life beyond Earth, but to learn to study how that life, too, might have evolved.

 

 

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Diamonds and Science: The Deep Earth, Deep Time, and Extraterrestrial Crystal Rain

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Deep Earth diamond with garnet inside.  These inclusions, which occur during the diamond formation process, provide not only a way to date the diamonds, but also a window into conditions in deep Earth when they wee formed.  (M. Gress, VU Amsterdam)

We all know that cut diamonds sparkle and shine, one of the great aesthetic creations from nature.

Less well known is that diamonds and the bits of minerals, gases and water encased in them offer a unique opportunity to probe the deepest regions of our planet.

Thought to be some of the oldest available materials found on Earth — some dated at up to 3.5 billion years old — they crystallize at great depth and under great pressure.

But from the point of view of those who study them, it’s the inclusions that loom large because allow them to know the age and depth of the diamond’s formation. And some think they can ultimately provide important clues to major scientific questions about the origin of water on Earth and even the origin of life.

The strange and remarkable subterranean world where the diamonds are formed has, of course, never been visited, but has been intensively studied using a variety of indirect measurements.  And this field has in recent weeks gotten some important discoveries based on those diamond inclusions.

First is the identification by Fabrizio Nestola of the Department of Geosciences at the University of Padua and colleagues of a mineral that has been theorized to be the fourth most  common on Earth, yet had never been found in nature or successfully synthesized in a laboratory.  As reported in the journal Nature, the mineral is a variant of calcium silicate (CaSiO3), created at a high pressure that gives it a uniquely deep-earth crystal structure called “perovskite,” which is the name of a mineral, too.

Mineral science does not allow a specimen to be named until it has actually been found in name, and now this very common form of mineral finally will get a name. But more important, it moves forward our understanding of what happens far below the Earth’s surface.

 

 

Where diamonds are formed and found on Earth. The super-deep are produced very far into the mantle and are pushed up by volcanoes and convection  The lithospheric diamonds are from the rigid upper mantle and crust and the alluvial diamonds are those which came to the surface and then were transported elsewhere by natural forces. (Fabrio Nestola, Joseph R Smyth)

 

The additional discovery was of a tiny bit of water ice known as ICE-VII inside several other deep diamonds.  While samples of H2O ice have been identified in diamonds before, none were ICE-VII which is formed only under tremendous deep-Earth pressure.

In addition to being a first, the ICE-VII discovery adds to the growing confidence of scientists that much H2O remains deep underground, with some inferring as much deep subsurface water as found in the surface oceans.  That paper was authored by University of Nevada, Las Vegas geoscientist Oliver Tschauner and colleagues, and appeared in the journal Science.

Diamonds are a solid form of carbon with a distinctive cubic crystal structure.  They are generally formed at depths of 100 to 150 miles in the Earth’s mantle, although a few have come from as deep as 500 to 600 miles down.  (And some come from space, as described in this article below and in a just published Nature Communications article about diamonds in the Almahata Sitta meteorite that crashed in Sudan in 2006.)

Those super-deep Earth diamonds form in a cauldron up to 1,000 degrees F and at 240,000 times the atmospheric pressure at sea level.  They are made from carbon-containing fluids that dissolve minerals and replace them with what over time become diamonds.

Much more recently (tens to hundreds of million years ago), the would have been pushed to the surface in volcanic eruptions and deposited in igneous rocks known as kimberlites (blue-tinged in color and coarse grained) and lamproites (rich in potassium and also from deep in the mantle.)

The mantle – which makes up more than 80 percent of the Earth’s volume – is made of silicate minerals containing iron, aluminum, and calcium among others.  Blue diamonds are that color because of the presence of the trace mineral boron in the mantle.

And now we can add water the list as well.

 

Professor of Mineralogy Fabrizio Nestola presented on his recent work in advances in X-ray crystallography on diamonds and their inclusions in a talk title “Diamond, A Journey to the Center of the Earth.” One of his collaborators on the recent high-pressure calcium silicate paper is mantle geochemist Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta, where Nestola was recently a visiting professor. (RadioBue.it)

Nestola, who has been conducting his deep-Earth studies with a major grant from the European Union, is eager to take his already substantial work much further.

First he is looking for answers to the basic question of the origin of water on Earth (from incoming asteroids and comets or an integral component at formation) and ultimately to the origin of life.  Diamonds, he says, offer a pathway to study both subjects.

For water, his goal is to find a range of diamond-encircled samples that can be measured for their deuterium to hydrogen ratio — a key diagnostic to determining where in the solar system an object and its H2O originated,  Deuterium, or heavy hydrogen, is an isotope of hydrogen with an extra neutron.

An example of a super-deep diamond from the Cullinan Mine, where scientists recently discovered a diamond that provides first evidence in nature of Earth’s fourth most abundant mineral–calcium silicate perovskite. (Petra Diamonds)

As the number of diamond samples with evidence of water grows, Nestola says it will be possible to determine how the D/H ratio changes over time and as a result gain a better understanding of where the Earth’s water came from.

When it comes to clues regarding the origin of life, Nestola will be looking for carbon isotopes in the diamonds.

“Actually, it cannot be excluded that carbon from a primordial organic matter can even travel to the lower mantle,” he told me. “The oldest diamonds were dated 3.5-3.6 billion years, so it would be fantastic to detect a carbon isotope signature of surface carbon in a 3.5 billion years diamond.  This could provide very strong input for the origin of life.”

Regarding the high-pressure form of calcium silicate that he and his colleagues recently identified, Nestola said that many scientists have tried to reproduce it in their labs but have found there’s no way to keep the mineral stable at surface pressures.  So the discovery had to be made from inside the nearly impermeable container of a diamond.

The diamond that contained the common yet never before found mineral was just 0.031 millimeters across, is also a super-rare specimen.

Adding to the interest in this discovery is that other trace minerals and elements found in the inclusion strongly suggest that the material was once on the Earth’s crust.  The logic is that it would have been subducted as a function of plate tectonics billions of years ago, then encased in a forming diamond deep in the mantle, and ultimately sent back up near the surface again.

Most diamonds are born much closer to Earth’s surface, between 93 and 124 miles deep. But this particular diamond would have formed at a depth of around 500 miles, the researchers said.

“The diamond keeps the mineral at the pressure where it was formed, and so it tells us a lot about the ancient deep-Earth environment,” Nestola said.  “This is how we’ll learn about deep Earth and ancient Earth.  And we hope about those central origin questions too.”

 

A South African diamond crystal on kimberlite, an igneous rock formed deep in the mantle and famous for the frequency with which it contains diamonds. (Shutterstock)

For his ICE-VII study, Tschauner used diamonds found in China, the Republic of South Africa, and Botswana that had been pushed up from inside Earth.  He believes the range of locations strongly suggests that the presence of the ICE-VII is a global phenomenon.

Scientists theorize the diamonds used in the study were born in the mantle under temperatures reaching more than 1,000-degrees Fahrenheit.

“One essential question that we are working on is how much water is actually stored in the mantle.  Is it oceans, or just a bit?” Tschauner said. “This work shows there can be free excess fluids in the mantle, which is important.”

The mantle is a vast reservoir of mostly solid and very hot rock under immense pressure beneath the crust. It has an upper layer, a transition zone, and a lower layer. The upper layer has a little bit of water, but scientist estimate 10 times more water may be in the transition zone, where the enormous pressure is changing crystal structures and minerals seem to be more soluble. Minerals in the lower layer don’t seem to hold water as well.

There’s already evidence of water in the mantle in different forms, such as water that has been broken up and incorporated into other minerals. But these diamonds contain water frozen into a special kind of ice crystal. There are lots of different ways water can crystallize into ice, but ice-VII is formed under higher pressures.

While the diamond was forming, it must have encapsulated some liquid water from around the transition zone. The high temperatures prevented this water from crystalizing under the high pressures. As geologic activity moved the diamonds to the surface, they maintained the high pressures in their rigid crystal structures—but the temperature dropped. This would have caused the water to freeze into ice-VII.

The discovery of Ice-VII in the diamonds is the first known natural occurrence of the aqueous fluid from the deep mantle. Ice-VII had been found as a solid in prior lab testing of materials under intense pressure. As described before,  it begins as a liquid in the mantle.

“These discoveries are important in understanding that water-rich regions in the Earth’s interior can play a role in the global water budget and the movement of heat-generating radioactive elements,” Tschauner said.

This discovery can help scientists create new, more accurate models of what’s going on inside the Earth, specifically how and where heat is generated under the Earth’s crust.

 “It’s another piece of the puzzle in understanding how our planet works,” Tschauner said.

A polished and enlarged section of the Esquel pallasite meteoritemeteorite that delivered tiny nano-diamonds to Earth. This is a common occurrence, as there is believed to be substantial amounts of high-pressure carbon in the galaxies, and thus some diamonds. (Trustees of the NHM, London)

The diamonds studied by researchers such as Nestola and Tschauner not the sort that would ever go to the market.  “They are very bad diamonds, bad for jewelers,” Nestola said, “but precious for geologists.”

Diamonds are by no means exclusive to Earth, and are becoming a significant area of study for planetary exoplanet scientists, too.

Not only are they contained in minute form in meteorites, but atmospheric data for the gas giant planets indicates that carbon is abundant in its famous hard crystal form elsewhere in the solar system and no doubt beyond.

Lightning storms turn methane into sooty carbon which, as it falls, hardens under great pressure into graphite and then diamond.

These diamond “hail stones” eventually melt into a liquid sea in the planets’ hot cores, researchers told a an American Astronomical Society conference in 2013.

The biggest diamonds would likely be about a centimeter in diameter – “big enough to put on a ring, although of course they would be uncut,” says Dr Kevin Baines, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“The bottom line is that 1,000 tons of diamonds a year are being created on Saturn. People ask me – how can you really tell? Because there’s no way you can go and observe it.

“It all boils down to the chemistry. And we think we’re pretty certain.”

These potential raining diamonds, and all sorts of other extraterrestrial diamonds including possible diamond worlds, doubtless have their own scientifically compelling and important stories to tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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False Positives, False Negatives; The World of Distant Biosignatures Attracts and Confounds

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This artist’s illustration shows two Earth-sized planets, TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1c, passing in front of their parent red dwarf star, which is much smaller and cooler than our sun. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope looked for signs of atmospheres around these planets. (NASA/ESA/STScI/J. de Wit, MIT)

What observations, or groups of observations, would tell exoplanet scientists that life might be present on a particular distant planet?

The most often discussed biosignature is oxygen, the product of life on Earth.  But while oxygen remains central to the search for biosignatures afar, there are some serious problems with relying on that molecule.

It can, for one, be produced without biology, although on Earth biology is the major source.  Conditions on other planets, however, might be different, producing lots of oxygen without life.

And then there’s the troubling reality that for most of the time there has been life on Earth, there would not have been enough oxygen produced to register as a biosignature.  So oxygen brings with it the danger of both a false positive and a false negative.

Wading through the long list of potential other biosignatures is rather like walking along a very wet path and having your boots regularly pulled off as they get captured by the mud.  Many possibilities can be put forward, but all seem to contain absolutely confounding problems.

With this reality in mind, a group of several dozen very interdisciplinary scientists came together more than a year ago in an effort to catalogue the many possible biosignatures that have been put forward and then to describe the pros and the cons of each.

“We believe this kind of effort is essential and needs to be done now,” said Edward Schwieterman, an astronomy and astrobiology researcher at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

“Not because we have the technology now to identify these possible biosignatures light years away, but because the space and ground-based telescopes of the future need to be designed so they can identify them. ”

“It’s part of what may turn out to be a very long road to learning whether or not we are alone in the universe”.

 

Artistic representations of some of the exoplanets detected so far with the greatest potential to support liquid surface water, based on their size and orbit.  All of them are larger than Earth and their composition and habitability remains unclear. They are ranked here from closest to farthest from Earth.  Mars, Jupiter, Neptune an Earth are shown for scale on the right. (Planetary Habitability Laboratory, managed by the University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo.)

The known and inferred population of exoplanets — even small rocky exoplanets — is now so vast that it’s tempting to assume that some support life and that some day we’ll find it.  After all,  those billions of planets are composed of same basic chemical elements as Earth and are subject to the same laws of physics.

That assumption of life widespread in the galaxies may well turn out to be on target.  But assuming this result, and proving or calculating a high probability of finding extraterrestrial life, are light years apart.

The timing of this major community effort is hardly accidental.  There is a National Academy of Sciences effort underway to review progress in the science of reading possible biosignatures from distant worlds, something that I wrote about recently.

Edward Schwieterman, spent six years at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory.  He now works with the NASA Astrobiology Institute Alternative Earths team UCR.

The results from the NAS effort will in term flow into the official NAS decadal study that will follow and will recommend to Congress priorities for the next ten or twenty years.  In addition, two NASA-ordered science and technology definition teams are currently working on architectures for two potential major NASA missions for the 2030s — HabEx (the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission) and Luvoir (the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor.)

The two mission proposals, which are competing with several others, would provide the best opportunity by far to determine whether life exists on other distant planets.

With these formal planning and prioritizing efforts as a backdrop, NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) called for a biosignatures workshop in the fall of 2016 and brought together scientists from many disciplines to wrestle with the subject.  The effort led to the white paper submitted to NAS and will result in and will result in the publication of series of five detailed papers in the journal Astrobiology this spring.” The overview paper with Schwieterman as first author, which has already been made available to the community for peer review, is expected to lead off the package.

So what did they find?  First off, that Earth has to be their guide.

“Life on Earth, through its gaseous products and reflectance and scattering properties, has left its fingerprint on the spectrum of our planet,” the paper reads. “Aided by the universality of the laws of physics and chemistry, we turn to Earth’s biosphere, both in the present and through geologic time, for analog signatures that will aid in the search for life elsewhere.

Considering the insights gained from modern and ancient Earth, and the broader array of hypothetical exoplanet possibilities, we have compiled a state-of-the-art overview of our current understanding of potential exoplanet biosignatures including gaseous, surface, and temporal biosignatures.”

In other words, potential biosignatures in the atmosphere, on the ground, and that become apparent over time.  We’ll start with the temporal:

These vegetation maps were generated from MODIS/Terra measurements of the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). Significant seasonal variations in the NDVI are apparent between northern hemisphere summer  and winter. (Reto Stockli, NASA Earth Observatory Group, using data from the MODIS Land Science Team.)

Vegetation is probably clearest example of how change-over-time can be a biosignature.  As these maps show and we all know, different parts of the Earth have different seasonal colorations.  Detecting exoplanetary change of this sort would be a potentially strong signal, though it could also have some non-biological explanations.

If there is any kind of atmospheric chemical corroboration, then the time signal would be a strong one.  That corroboration could come in seasonal modulations of biologically important gases such as CO2 or O2.  Changes in cloud cover and the periodic presence of volcanic gases can also be useful markers over time.

Plant pigments themselves which have been proposed as a surface biosignature.  Observed in the near infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, the pigment chlorophyll — the central player in the process of photosynthesis — shows a sharp increase in reflectance at a particular wavelength.  This abrupt change is called the “red edge,” and is a measurement known to exist only which chlorophyll engaged in photosynthesis.

So the “red edge,” or parallel dropoffs in reflectance of other pigments on other planets, is another possible biosignature in the mix.

And then there is “glint,” reflections from exoplanets that come from light hitting water.

True-color image from a model (left) compared to a view of Earth from the Earth and Moon Viewer (http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Earth/). A glint spot in the Indian Ocean can be clearly seen in the model image.

Since biosignature science essentially requires the presence of H2O on a planet, the clear detection of an ocean is part of the process of assembling signatures of potential life.  Just as detecting oxygen in the atmosphere is important, so too is detecting unmistakable surface water.

But for reasons of both science and detectability, the chemical make-up exoplanet atmospheres is where much biosignature work is being done.  The compounds of interest include (but are not limited to) ozone, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur gases, methyl chloride and less specific atmospheric hazes.  All are, or have been, associated with life on Earth, and potentially on other planets and moons as well.

The Schwieterman et al review looks at all these compounds and reports on the findings of researchers who have studied them as possible biosignatures.  As a sign of how broadly they cast their net, the citations alone of published biosignature papers number more than 300.

(Sara Seager and William Bains of MIT, both specialists in exoplanet atmospheres, have been compiling a separate and much broader list of potential biosignatures, even many produced in very small quantities on Earth.  Bains is a co-author on one of the five biosignature papers for the journal Astrobiology.)

All this work, Schwieterman said, will pay off significantly over time.

“If our goal is to constrain the search for life in our solar neighborhood, we need to know as much as we possibly can so the observatories have the necessary capabilities.  We could possibly save hundreds of millions or billions of dollars by constraining the possibilities.”

“The strength of this compilation is the full body of knowledge, putting together what we know in a broad and fast-developing field,” Schwieterman said. ”

He said that there’s such a broad range of possible biosignatures, and so many conditions where some might be more or less probable, that’s it’s essential to categorize and prioritize the information that has been collected (and will be collected in the future.)

“We have a lot of observations recorded here, but they will all have their ambiguities,” he said.  “Our goal as scientists will be to take what we know and work to reduce those ambiguities. It’s an enormous task.”

 

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2.5 Billion Years of Earth History in 100 Square Feet

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Scalding hot water from an underground thermal spring creates an iron-rich environment similar to what existed on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. (Nerissa Escanlar)

Along the edge of an inlet on a tiny Japanese island can be found– side by side – striking examples of conditions on Earth some 2.4 billion years ago, then 1.4 billion years ago and then the Philippine Sea of today.

First is a small channel with iron red, steaming and largely oxygen-free water – filled from below with bubbling liquid above 160 degrees F. This was Earth as it would have existed, in a general way, as oxygen was becoming more prevalent on our planet some 2.4 billion years ago. Microbes exist, but life is spare at best.

Right next to this ancient scene is region of green-red water filled with cyanobacteria – the single-cell creatures that helped bring masses of oxygen into our atmosphere and oceans.  Locals come to this natural “onsen” for traditional hot baths, but they have to make their way carefully because the rocky floor is slippery with green mats of the bacteria.

And then there is the Philippine Sea, cool but with spurts of warm water shooting up from below into the cove.

All of this within a area of maybe 100 square feet.

It is a unique hydrothermal scene, and one recently studied by two researchers from the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo – evolutionary microbiologist Shawn McGlynn and ancient virus specialist Tomohiro Mochizuki.

They were taking measurements of temperature, salinity and more, as well as samples of the hot gas and of microbial life in the iron-red water. Cyanobacterial mats are collected in the greener water, along with other visible microbe worlds.

Shawn McGlynn, associate professor at the Earth Life Science Institute in Tokyo scoops some iron-rich water from a channel on Shikine-jima Island, 100 miles from Tokyo. (Nerissa Escanlar)

The scientific goals are to answer specific questions – are the bubbles the results of biology or of geochemical processes? What are the isotopic signatures of the gases? What microbes and viruses live in the super-hot sections? And can cyanobacteria and iron co-exist?

All are connected, though, within the broad scientific effort underway to ever more specifically understand conditions on Earth through the eons, and how those conditions can help answer fundamental questions of how life might have begun.

“We really don’t know what microbiology looked like 2.5 billion or 1.5 billion years ago,” said McGlynn, “But this is a place we can go where we can try to find out. It’s a remarkable site for going back in time.”

In particular, there are not many natural environments with high levels of dissolved iron like this site. Yet scientists know from the rock record that there were periods of Earth history when the oceans were similarly filled with iron.

Mochizuki elaborated: “We’re trying to figure out what was possible chemically and biologically under certain conditions long ago.

“If you have something happening now at this unusual place – with the oxygen and iron mixing in the hot water to turn the water red – then there’s a chance that what we find today was there as well billions of years ago. ”

Tomohiro Mochizuki at collecting samples directly from the spot where 160 degree F water pushes up through the rock at Jinata hot spring. (Nerissa Escanlar)

The Jinata hot springs, as the area is known, is on Shikine-jima Island, one of the furthest out in the Izu chain of islands that starts in Tokyo Bay. More than 100 miles from Tokyo itself, Shikine-jima is nonetheless part of Tokyo Prefecture.

The Izu islands are all volcanic, created by the underwater movements of the Philippine and Pacific tectonic plates. That boundary remains in flux, and thus the hot springs and volcanoes. The terrain can be pretty rugged: in English, Jinata translates to something like Earth Hatchet, since the hot spring is at the end of a path through what does look like a rock rising that had been cut through with a hatchet.

Hot springs and underwater thermal vents have loomed large in thinking about origins of life since it became known in recent decades that both generally support abundant life – microbial and larger – and supply nutrients and even energy in the form of electricity from vents and electron transfers from chemical reactions.

And so not surprisingly, vents are visited and sampled not infrequently by ELSI scientists. McGlynn was on another hydrothermal vent field trip in Iceland over the summer with, among others, ELSI Origins Network fellow Donato Gionovelli and ELSI principal investigator and electrochemist Ruyhei Nakamura..

McGlynn’s work is focused on how electrons flow between elements and compounds, a transfer that he sees as a basic architecture for all life. With so many compelling flows occurring in such a small space, Jinata is a superb laboratory.

The volcanic Izu island chain, starting in Tokyo Bay and going out into the Philippine Sea.

For Mochizuki, the site turned out to be exciting but definitely not a goldmine. That’s because his speciality is viruses that live at very high temperatures, and even the bubbling hot spring in the iron trench measured about 73 degrees C (163 degrees F.) The viruses he incubates live at temperatures between closer to 90 C (194 F), not far from the boiling point.

His goal in studying these high-temperature (hyperthermophilic) viruses is to look back to the earliest days of life forming on Earth, using viruses as his navigators. Since life is thought by many scientists to have begun in a super hot RNA world, Mochizuki wants to look at viruses still living in those conditions today to see what they can tell us.

So far, he explained, what they have told us is that the RNA in the earliest lifeforms on Earth – denizens of the Archaean kingdom – did not have viruses. And this is puzzling.

So Mochizuki is always interested in going to sample hot springs and thermal vents to collect high temperature viruses, and to look for surprises.

Though the bubbling waters were so hot that both researchers had difficulty standing in the water with boots on and holding their collection vials with gloves, it was not hot enough for what Mochizuki is after. But that certainly didn’t stop him from taking as many samples as he could, including some for other ELSI researchers doing different work but still needing interesting samples.

Researchers often need to be inventive on field trips, and that was certainly the case at Jinata. When McGlynn first tried to sample the bubbles at the scalding spring, his hands and feet quickly felt on fire and he had to retreat.

To speed the process, he and Mochizuki built a funnel out of a large plastic water bottle, a device that allowed the bubbles to be collected and directed into the sample vial without the gloved hands being so close to the heat.   The booted feet, however, remained a problem and the heat just had to be endured.

Nearby the steaming bubbling of the hot spring were collections of what appeared to be fine etchings on the bottom of the red channel. These faint designs, McGlynn explained, were the product of a microbe that makes it’s way along the bottom and deposits lines of processed iron oxide as it goes. So while the elegant designs are not organic, the creatures that creates them surely is.

“Touch the area and the lines go poof,” McGlynn said. “That’s because they’re just the iron oxide; nothing more. Next to us is the water with much less iron and a lot more oxygen, and so there are blooms of (green) cyanobacteria. Touch them and they don’t go poof, they stick to your hand because they’re alive.”

Filaments created by microbes as they deposit iron oxide at the bottom of small channel. (Marc Kaufman)

McGlynn also collects some of the the poofs to get at the microbes making the unusual etchings. It may be a microbe never identified before.

As a microbiologist, he is of course interested in identifying and classifying microbes. He initially thought the microbes in the iron channel would be anaerobic, but he found that even tiny amount of oxygen making their way into the springs from the atmosphere made most aerobic, or possibly anaerobes capable of surviving with oxygen (which usually is toxic to them.)

He also found that laboratory studies that found cyanobacteria would not flourish in the presence of iron were not accurate in nature, or certainly were not accurate at Jinata onsen.

But it is that flow of electrons that really drives McGlynn – he even dreams of them at night, he told me.

One of the goals of his work, and that of his colleague and sometimes collaborator at ELSI, geobiochemist Yuichiro Ueno, is to answer some of the outstanding questions about that flow of electrons (electricity) from the core of the Earth. The energy transits through the mantle, to the surface and then often is in contact with the biosphere (all living things) before it enters the atmosphere and sometimes disappears into space.

He likened the process to the workings of a gigantic battery, with the iron core as the cathode and the oxygen in the atmosphere as the anode. Understanding the chemical pathways traveled by the electrons today, he is convinced, will tell a great deal about conditions on the early Earth as well.

It’s all important research in what is a chipping away of the many unknowns in the stories of the origins of Earth and the origin of life.

A boundary between where the very hot iron-rich water meets and the less hot water with thriving cyanobacteria colonies at Jinata.

The field work also illustrated the hit-and-miss nature of these kind of outings. While McGlynn has not come up with Jinata surprises or novel understandings, he was so taken with the setting that he wondered if a seemly empty building not too far from the site could be turned into an ELSI marine lab.

And while Mochizuki did not find sufficiently hot water for his work, he might still be coming back to the island, or others nearby. That’s because he learned of a potentially much hotter spring at a spot where the sea hits one of the island’s steep cliffs – a site that requires boat access that was unsafe in the choppy waters during this particular visit.

In addition, McGlynn and Mochizuki did make some surprising discoveries, though they didn’t involve microbes, electron transfer or viruses.

During a morning visit to a different hot spring, they came across a team of what turned out to be officials of the Izu islands – all dressed in suits and ties. They were visiting Shikine-jima as part of a series of joint islands visit to assess economic development opportunities.

The officials were intrigued to learn what the scientists were up to, and made some suggestions of other spots to sample. One was an island occupied by Japanese self-defense forces and generally closed to outsiders. But the island is known to have areas of extremely hot water just below the surface of the land, sometimes up to 100 C (212 F.)

The officials gave their cards and told the scientists to contact them if they wanted to get onto that island for sampling. And as for the official from Shikine-jima, he was already thinking big.

“It would be a very good thing,” he said, “if you found the origin of life on our island.

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Could High-Energy Radiation Have Played an Important Role in Getting Earth Ready For Life?

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A version of this article first appeared in Astrobiology Magazine, www.astrobio.net.

The fossil remains of a natural nuclear reactor in Oklo, Gabon.  It entered a fission state some 2 billion years ago, and so would not have been involved in any origin of life scenario.  But is a proof of concept that these natural reactors have existed and some were widespread on earth Earth.  It is but one possible source of high energy particles on early Earth. The yellow rock is uranium oxide. (Robert D. Loss, Curtin University, Australia)

Life on early Earth seems to have begun with a paradox: while life needs water as a solvent, the essential chemical backbones of early life-forming molecules fall apart in water. Our universal solvent, it turns out, can be extremely corrosive.

Some have pointed to this paradox as a sign that life, or the precursor of life, originated elsewhere and was delivered here via comets or meteorites. Others have looked for solvents that could have the necessary qualities of water without that bond-breaking corrosiveness.

In recent years the solvent often put forward as the eligible alternative to water is formamide, a clear and moderately irritating liquid consisting of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Unlike water, it does not break down the long-chain molecules needed to form the nucleic acids and proteins that make up life’s key initial instruction manual, RNA. Meanwhile it also converts via other useful reactions into key compounds needed to make nucleic acids in the first place.

Although formamide is common in star-forming regions of space, scientists have struggled to find pathways for it to be prevalent, or even locally concentrated, on early Earth. In fact, it is hardly present on Earth today except as a synthetic chemical for companies.

New research presented by Zachary Adam, an earth scientist at Harvard University, and Masashi Aono, a complex systems scientist at Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology, has produced formamide by way of a surprising and reproducible pathway: bombardment with radioactive particles.

 

In a room fitted for cobalt-60 testing on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, a team of researchers gather around the (still covered) cobalt-60 and vials of the chemicals they were testing. The ELSI scientists are (from left) Masashi Aono,  James Cleaves, Zachary Adam and Riquin Yi.  (Isao Yoda)

The two and their colleagues exposed a mixture of two chemicals known to have existed on early Earth (hydrogen cyanide and aqueous acetonitrile) to the high-energy particles emitted from a cylinder of cobalt-60, an artificially produced radioactive isotope commonly used in cancer therapy. The result, they report, was the production of substantial amounts of formamide more quickly than earlier attempts by researchers using theoretical models and in laboratory settings.

It remains unclear whether early Earth had enough radioactive material in the right places to produce the chemical reactions that led to the formation of formamide. And even if the conditions were right, scientists cannot yet conclude that formamide played an important role in the origin of life.

Still, the new research furthers the evidence of the possible role of alternative solvents and presents a differing picture of the basis of life. Furthermore, it is suggestive of processes that might be at work on other exoplanets as well – where solvents other than water could, with energy supplied by radioactive sources, provide the necessary setting for simple compounds to be transformed into far more complex building blocks.

Formamide is a clear liquid which is miscible with water and has an ammonia-like odor.

“Imagine that water-based life was preceded by completely unique networks of interacting molecules that approximated, but were distinct from and followed different chemical rules, than life as we know it,” said Adam.

Their work was presented at recent gatherings of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, and the Astrobiology Science Conference.

The team of Adam and Aono are hardly the first to put forward the formamide hypothesis as a solution to the water paradox, and they are also not the first to posit a role for high-energy, radioactive particles in the origin of life.

An Italian team led by Rafaelle Saladino of Tuscia University recently proposed formamide as a chemical that would supply necessary elements for life and would avoid the ‘water paradox.’ Since the time that Marie Curie described the phenomenon of radioactivity, scientists have proposed innumerable ways that the emission of particle-shedding atomic nuclei might have played roles, either large or small, in initiating life on Earth.

Merging the science of formamide and radioactivity, as Adam and Aono have done, is a potentially significant step forward, though one that needs deeper study.

“If we have formamide as a solvent, those precursor molecules can be kept stable, a kind of cradle to preserve very interesting products,” said Aono, who has moved to Tokyo-based Keio University while remaining a fellow at ELSI.

Aono and technician Isao Yoda in the radiation room with the cobalt-60 safely tucked away. (Nerissa Escanlar.)

The experiment with cobalt-60 did not begin as a search for a way to concentrate the production of formamide. Rather, Adam was looking more generally into the effects of gamma rays on a variety of molecules and solvents, while Aono was exploring radioactive sources for a role in the origin of life.

The two came together somewhat serendipitously at ELSI, an origins-of-life research center created by the Japanese government. ELSI was designed to be a place for scientists from around the world and from many different disciplines to tackle some of the notoriously difficult issues in origins of life research. At ELSI, Adam, who had been unable to secure sites to conduct laboratory tests in the United States, learned from Aono about a sparingly-used (and free) cobalt-60 lab; they promptly began collaborating.

It is well known that the early Earth was bombarded by high-energy cosmic particles and gamma rays. So is the fact that numerous elements (aluminum-26, iron-60, iodine-129) have existed as radioactive isotopes that can emit radiation for minutes to millennium, and that these isotopes were more common on early Earth than today. Indeed, the three listed above are now extinct on Earth, or nearly extinct, in their natural forms

Less known is the presence of “natural nuclear reactors” as sites where a high concentration of uranium in the presence of water has led to self-sustaining nuclear fission. Only one such spot has been found —in the Oklo region of the African nation of Gabon — where spent radioactive material was identified at 16 sites separate sites. Scientists ultimately concluded widespread natural nuclear reactions occurred in the region some 2 billion years ago.

That time frame would mean that the site would have been active well after life had begun on Earth, but it is a potential proof of concept of what could have existed elsewhere long before

Adam and Aono remain agnostic about where the formamide-producing radioactive particles came from. But they are convinced that it is entirely possible that such reactions took place and helped produce an environment where each of the backbone precursors of RNA could readily be found in close quarters.

Current scientific thinking about how formamide appeared on Earth focuses on limited arrival via asteroid impacts or through the concentration of the chemical in evaporated water-formamide mixtures in desert-like conditions. Adam acknowledges that the prevailing scientific consensus points to low amounts of formamide on early Earth.

“We are not trying to argue to the contrary,” he said, “but we are trying to say that it may not matter.”

If you have a unique place (or places) on the Earth creating significant amounts of formamide over a long period of time through radiolysis, then an opportunity exists for the onset of some unique chemistry that can support the production of essential precursor compounds for life, Adam said.

“So, the argument then shifts to— how likely was it that this unique place existed? We only need one special location on the entire planet to meet these circumstances,” he said.

Zachary Adam, an earth scientist in the lab of Andrew Knoll at Harvard University. (Nerissa Escanlar)

After that, the system set into motion would have the ability to bring together the chemical building blocks of life.

“That’s the possibility that we look forward to investigating in the coming years,” Adam said.

James Cleaves, an organic chemist also at ELSI and a co-author of the cobalt-60 paper, said while production of formamide from much simpler compounds represents progress, “there are no silver bullets in origin of life work. We collect facts like these, and then see where they lead.”

Another member of the cobalt-60 team is Albert Fahrenbach, a former postdoc in the lab of Harvard University’s Nobel laureate Jack Szostak and now an associate principal investigator at ELSI.

An organic chemist, Fahrenbach was a late-comer to the project, brought in because Cleaves thought the project could use his expertise.

“Connecting the origins of life, or precursors chemicals, with radiolysis (or radioactivty) was an active field back in the 70s and 80s,” he said. “Then it pretty much died out and went out of fashion.”

Fahrenbach said he remains uncertain about any possible role for radiolysis in the origin of life story. But the experiment did intrigue him greatly, it led him to experiment with some of the chemicals formed by the gamma ray blasts, and he says the results have been productive.

“Without this experiment, I would definitely not be going down some very interesting paths,” he said

 

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