The evolution of Earth and the emergence of life during its first half-billion years are inextricably linked, with a series of planetwide transformations underpinning the environmental stepping stones to life, including formation of the ocean, evolution of the atmosphere, and the growth of crust and continents. But how, and in what order, were the ingredients for life on Earth manufactured and assembled?
NASA’s Astrobiology Program has awarded a $9 million grant to tackle the question through the Earth First Origins project, led by Karyn Rogers (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA). The five-year project seeks to uncover the conditions on early Earth that gave rise to life by identifying, replicating, and exploring how prebiotic molecules and chemical pathways could have formed under realistic early Earth conditions. The initiative includes fellow DCO researchers Peter Fox, Bruce Watson (both at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA), Tom McCollom (University of Colorado Boulder, USA), Susan Lang (University of South Carolina, USA), Douglas LaRowe (University of Southern California, USA), and Andrew Steele (Carnegie Institution for Science, USA).
“Planet Earth and the chemistry of life share the same road,” said Rogers. “Because of that co-evolution, we can use our understanding of the fundamental planetary processes that set the Earth system in motion to sketch the physical, chemical, and environmental map to life.”
Earth First Origins serves as the catalyst for launching the Rensselaer Astrobiology Research and Education (RARE) Center. The newly established RARE Center supersedes its predecessor, the New York Center for Astrobiology, and unites a diverse team of experts in planetary evolution, early Earth geochemistry, prebiotic and experimental astrobiology, analytical chemistry, geochemical modelers, and data and visualization experts.
Under the umbrella of the RARE center, Rogers will also oversee the DEtecting Extraterrestrial Piezophiles in Ocean World Analogs (DEEP) Project, funded through the NASA Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research (PSTAR) program. The project is designed to better understand high-pressure microbes within Earth’s deepest hydrothermal vents, the Mid Cayman Rise, and to extend high pressure sampling and analysis for potentially detecting life on other planets. The researchers will use pressurized underwater sample handlers (PUSH) that enable them to retrieve and manipulate samples from the deep ocean without decompression. Rogers developed the PUSH with Isabelle Daniel (Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, France) with support from the DCO.
“Various types of environments existed on early Earth and many of them could have been the starting place of life, or life could have emerged via processes that connected several environmental niches,” said Rogers. “We want to establish the range of possible conditions in different early Earth environments, replicate them in the lab, and understand the particular factors that contribute to the sequence of chemical syntheses that lead to life.”
The Earth First Origins project will establish the Gateway to Early Earth, which consists of both a virtual environment, the Virtual early Earth Portal (VeEP) and a physical lab space, the early Earth Lab (eEL). The VeEP provides applications and tools for integrating geochemical and geophysical models, and applying data visualization techniques to explore the range of possibilities in various early Earth environments. The eEL will house a suite of experimental equipment used to replicate early Earth environments. It will not only target the temperature, pressure, and geochemical conditions of the early Earth, but will also employ novel experimental techniques to represent the dynamic connections between different systems.
“While the Earth First Origins project doesn’t specifically focus on the deep carbon cycle, you can’t understand the chemistry of life’s origins without carbon,” said Rogers. “The experimental facilities developed as part of eEL also could be useful for doing any sort of experimental work where you need to replicate early Earth environments, including simulations of the early carbon cycle.”
Main image credit: NASA