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Early Earth and the Origins of Life
Why do we care?
How old do you think Life is?
Early Earth and the Origins of Life
August 26, 2011
Lecture overview:
-formation of the solar system and Earth
-conditions on early Earth
-theories concerning the origin of life on Earth
-geologic evidence for earliest life on Earth
The Geologic Timescale
Planetary disk
with thanks to L. T. Elkins-Tanton, JPL
Ca-Al inclusions in carbonaceous chondrites
4.5672±0.0006 Ga (billion years ago)
Linked solidification and cooling
magma oceans at first…
Formation of the Moon: 4.53Ga
Moon forms from debris of a collision between a Mars-sized body and Earth
Animation of moon formation, courtesy of Joe Tucciarone
The Archean Earth System
Archean: 4.03 to 2.5 Ga (Ga=billion years ago)
• Late Heavy Bombardment (4.1 to 3.8 Ga)
• Atmosphere: hardly any molecular oxygen (O2); appears at
~2Ga  earliest life probably anearobic!
• UV radiation (no ozone shield)  earliest life probably
• CO2 and CH4 -rich atmosphere
• Likely warm surface conditions (80o to 45oC)
• High rate of heat transfer from core to surface, possible thin
crust, plate tectonics just being established
w/ thanks to Stanley M. Awramik, UCSB
Steps towards Life
synthesize biomolecules (organic C, amino acids)
organize them into macromolecular systems
emergence of self-replicating codes of molecules (RNA)
emergence of molecular evolution via natural selection
after Hazen, 2006
The Miller/Urey Experiment
Stanley Miller and Harold Urey (1953)
-ran experiment for one week
-observed 10% of C in organic form
-2% of C in amino acid form
-too high-energy environment
(lightning not continuous)
-early Earth contained appreciable
CO2 (in addition to CH4)
on the other hand…
-meteorites contain appreciable
amino acids
A modern-day Miller/Urey experiment
Jeff Bada, Scripps Inst. of Oceanography
-redid the Miller/Urey experiment in 2007
-found 22 amino acids (more than M/U!)
-also analyzed the original M/U vials
using modern-day analytical techniques
Johnson et al., Science, 2008
“Hot volcanoe” and “cold soup” models
regarding the origin of Life on Earth
-organic molecules and amino
acids can be organized by
mineral lattices as templates
Hazen, 2006
What about combining the two?
hydrothermal vents
A schematic of
evolution of life on Earth
Modified from
Awramik and
McNamara, in
biofilms of cyanobacteria
capture and bind sediment
Today, at Shark’s Bay,
An Opinion
• “…true consensus for life’s existence seems to be reached
only with the bacterial fossils of the 1.9-billion-year-old
Gunflint Formation…” Moorbath, S., 2005. Nature, 434, p.
& Barghoorn,
Candidates for Early Archean Fossils
3.85Ga rock
apatite (Ca-PO4) grain in rock
Nature, 1996
“carbonaceous” remnant
material after apatite
dissolved with acid
And the controversy continues….
A primer for
et al., 2002
ion microprobe
-instrument that focuses a beam of charged ions onto the surface of a sample
-charged ions generate ions for mass spectrometric analysis (separation by mass)
-in this case, used to look at different “isotopes” of carbon
Carbon isotopes
-C has two stable isotopes (12 protons, different # neutrons): 12C (99%) and 13C (1%)
-for the most part, they behave identically
-however, there is a slight difference in their “reactivity” (12C > 13C)
-photosynthesis: 12C is preferentially incorporated into biological materials (low 13C values)
cross-section of
a leaf
Mojzsis, 1996
Raman spectroscopy
-instrument detects extremely small changes in energy of light/laser/IR radiation
-in Schopf 2002, a laser is used to excite the sample molecules into a higher energy
state; they report “Raman shifts” that denote changes in laser wavelength
-shifts denote presence of specific chemical bonds and their relative orientations
-concentrated, high-molecular-weight organic compounds occuring in sedimentary rocks
-precursor to fossil fuels (formed upon heating of kerogen)
an oil shale
carbonate (containing CO3)
-most commonly CaCO3,
the mineral in limestone
-many marine organisms form
carbonate shells (corals, foraminifera)
limestone cliffs
-any small outgrowth or appendage on
certain plants and algae
trichomes on a
cannabis plant
-finely-grained, silica-rich, microcrystalline rock
-is a product of high-T chemical alteration of rocks
-metamorphic rocks resulting from low-T,
moderate pressure environments
-typically somewhat green in color

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