2.5 Billion Years of Earth History in 100 Square Feet

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.


Ocean Worlds: Enceladus Looks Increasingly Habitable, and Europa’s Ocean Under the Ice More Accessible to Sample

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It wasn’t that long ago that Enceladus, one of 53 moons of Saturn, was viewed as a kind of ho-hum object of no great importance.  It was clearly frozen and situated in a magnetic field maelstrom caused by the giant planet nearby and those saturnine rings.

That view was significantly modified in 2005 when scientists first detected signs of the icy plumes coming out of the bottom of the planet.  What followed was the discovery of warm fractures (the tiger stripes) near the moon’s south pole, numerous flybys and fly-throughs with the spacecraft Cassini, and by 2015 the announcement that the moon had a global ocean under its ice.

Now the Enceladus story has taken another decisive turn with the announcement that measurements taken during Cassini’s final fly-through captured the presence of molecular hydrogen.

To planetary and Earth scientists, that particular hydrogen presence quite clearly means that the water shooting out from Enceladus is coming from an interaction between water and warmed rock minerals at the bottom of the moon’s ocean– and possibly from within hydrothermal vents.

These chimney-like hydrothermal vents at the bottom of our oceans — coupled with a chemical mixture of elements and compounds similar to what has been detected in the plumes — are known on Earth as prime breeding grounds for life.  One important reason why is that the hydrogen and hydrogen compounds produced in these settings are a source of energy, or food, for microbes.

A logical conclusion of these findings:  the odds that Enceladus harbors forms of simple life have increased significantly.

To be clear, this is no discovery of extraterrestrial life. But it is an important step in the astrobiological quest to find life beyond Earth.

“The key here is that Enceladus can produce fuel that could be used by biology,” said Mary Voytek, NASA’s senior scientist for astrobiology, referring to the detection of hydrogen.


This graphic illustrates how scientists on NASA’s Cassini mission think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas (H2). It remains unclear whether the interactions are taking place in hydrothermal vents or more diffusely across the ocean. (NASA)

“So now on this moon we have many of the components associated with life — water, a source of energy and many of the important chemical building blocks.  Nothing coming from Cassini will tell is if there is biology there, but we definitely have found another important piece of evidence of possible habitability.”

The finding of molecular hydrogen (H2 rather a single hydrogen atom) in the Enceladus plumes was described in a Science paper lead by authors Hunter Waite and Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute, headquartered in San Antonio.

They went through a number of possible sources of the hydrogen and then concluded that the clearly most likely one was that chemical interaction of cool water and hot rocks — both heated by tidal forces in the complex Saturn system — at the bottom of the global ocean.

“We previously thought that the water was heated but now we have evidence that the rocks are as well,” Waite told me.  “And the evidence suggests that the rock is quite porous, which means that water is seeping through on a large scale and producing these chemical interactions that have a byproduct of hydrogen.”

The moon Enceladus is the sixth largest in the Saturn system. This image was taken by Cassini in 2008. (NASA/JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute.)

He said that the process could be taking place in and around those chimney-like hydrothermal vents,  or it could be more diffuse across the ocean floor.  The vent scenario, he said, was “easier to envision.”

What’s more, he said, the conditions during this water-rock interaction are favorable for the production of the gas methane, which has been detected in the Enceladus plume.

This is another tantalizing part of the Enceladus plume story because the earliest lifeforms on Earth are thought to have both consumed and expelled that gas.  At this point, however, Waite said there is no way to determine how the methane was formed, which would be a key finding if and when it is made.

“Our results leave us agnostic on the presence of life,” he said. “We don’t have enough information for that.”

“But we now can make a strong case that we have a very habitable environment on this moon.” It’s such a strong case, he said, that it would be almost as scientifically interesting to not find life there than to detect it.

One of the more interesting remaining puzzles is why the hydrogen is present in the plume in such unexpectedly substantial (though initially difficult to detect) amounts.  If there was a large microbial community under the ice, then it could plausibly be argued that there wouldn’t be so much hydrogen left if they were consuming it.

The possibilities:  Waite said that it could mean there is just a lot of “food” being produced for potential microbes to survive on in the ocean, or that other factors limit the microbe population size.  Or, of course, it could mean that there are no microbes at all to consume the hydrogen food.

Astronomers have twice found evidence of a plume of water vapor coming from the same location on Europa. Both plumes, photographed in UV light by Hubble, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter. (NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS)

News of the Enceladus discovery came on the same day that other researchers announced that strong evidence of detecting a similar plume on Jupiter’s moon Europa using the Hubble Space Telescope.

This was not the first plume seen on that larger moon of Jupiter, but is perhaps the most important because it appeared to be was spitting out water vapor in the same location as an earlier plume.  In other words, it may well be the site of a consistently or frequently appearing geyser.

“The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions,” said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “So after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map. We discovered that Europa’s plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly,”

Sparks led the Hubble plume studies in both 2014 and 2016, and their paper was published in The Astrophysical Journal.  He said he was quite confident, though not completely confident of the result because of the limits of the Hubble resolution.  A 100 percent confirmation, he said, will take more observations.

Since Europa has long been seen as a strong candidate for harboring extraterrestrial life, this is extraordinarily good news for those hoping to test that hypothesis.  Now, rather than devising a way to blast through miles of ice to get to Europa’s large, salty and billions-of-years-old ocean, scientists can potentially learn about the composition of water by studying the plume — as has happened at Enceladus.

As their paper concluded, “If borne out with future observations, these indications of an active Europan surface, with potential access to liquid water at depth, bolster the case for Europa’s potential habitability and for future sampling of erupted material by spacecraft.”

This is particularly exciting since NASA is actively developing a mission to Europa that would orbit the moon and could target the plume area for study.

NASA teams have also proposed a Europa lander — a mission that was rejected by the Trump administration in its budget proposals.  But discovery of  what might be a regularly-spurting plume just might change the equation.

The plumes of Enceladus originate in the long tiger stripe fractures of the south polar region pictured here. (Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA)

The news about both Enceladus and Europa illustrates well the process by which the search for life beyond Earth — astrobiology — moves forward.

Like few other disciplines, astrobiology needs expertise coming from a broad range of fields, from astrophysicists, geochemists, biochemists, geologists, and more.

Hunter Waite, for instance, trained as an atmospheric  scientists and now builds mass spectrometers for spacecraft such as Cassini,  operates them in flight, and analyzes and reports the data.  He is something of a “plume” expert as well, and will follow up his team leading work on Enceladus as principal investigator of the Europa mass spectrometer that surely will investigate that other moon’s new-found plumes. (The Europa mission, called the Europa Clipper, is loosely scheduled to launch in 2022.)

His colleague, Christopher Glein, is a geochemist.  And the leader of the Europa plume-spotting team, William Sparks, is an astronomer.

Mary Voytek, NASA senior scientist for astrobiology.  (NASA)

Each discipline focuses on a part of the larger system that might, or might not, be habitable.  No single scientists or discipline of scientists is capable of detecting extraterrestrial life.

This has long been the view of NASA’s Voytek, who views astrobiology as a kind of very long-term scientific full-court press.

She is wary of overselling discoveries that involve the search for life beyond Earth and the origin of life here, saying that they sometimes are well-meaning “science fiction” more than science.

However, the Enceladus findings in particular have her excited.  A lot of questions remain, such as whether the water with molecular hydrogen is coming from a hydrothermal vent or across the ocean floor, and whether the amount of methane detected in the plume increases or decreases the likelihood of life on the ocean floor.

But her conclusion: “I think this puts Enceladus into a different category and definitely higher up on the index of habitability.”  Any potential life, she said, would almost surely be microbial, though it might be larger “if we get lucky.”