NASA Studies Possible Origins of Life in a Lab

Scientists believe that the cracks in Earth’s crust or Hydrothermal vents in the deep oceans are the origins of life. To further investigate the origin of life, the scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, have decided to bring vents into their laboratories.

The heat of the planet seeps out into the deep ocean through these vents. So, the scientists are eager to study these vents further and understand if the building blocks of life have formed in these structures or not. They will also research how life evolved in the vents during the experiments.

The research may also lead to studying extraterrestrial life. The scientists think life could be found in similar vent structures that are hidden in the icy worlds.

A false-color image of Saturn's moon Enceladus
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The lead author of the research, Laurie Barge, is an astrobiologist. He stated that they don’t have concrete evidence of life elsewhere yet. However, they would study the conditions that are required for the origin of life in these structures. This will help them to narrow down the places where life could exist.

For this research, they ran a series of experiments and investigated the precise conditions under which amino acids could form in these systems. Since amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, the researchers created miniature hydrothermal-vent structures that were trapped in lab flasks. Their main focus was to observe how reactions proceeded in a more realistic environment compared to the previous experiments without such features.

According to them, it’s important to understand how far we can go with just organics and minerals in our experiments before we have an actual cell. This will create a picture of what types of environments life could emerge from. Moreover, studying how things in the vents like the atmosphere, the minerals, and ocean impact the building blocks of proteins.

Miniature hydrothermal chimney forming in the lab
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Flores

In this way, they will be able to understand how likely life might occur on another planet.

They believe that such hydrothermal vent environments exist on the ocean floors of ice-crusted moons in the outer solar system.


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