Life could have begun deep in the Earth’s crust

Potential beginning of life simulated in the lab.

A research team has recreated harsh conditions deep within the Earth’s crust as they existed some 3.8 billion years ago. 

In the beginning, there was the vesicle: A self-generated bubble similar to a soap bubble, enclosed by a membrane. It was surrounded by a liquid according to the recipe of the primeval soup, with a temperature of 40 to 80°C and increased pressure.

In their experiment, scientists recreated water-filled crevices in the Earth’s bowels and geothermal sources. They created and disintegrated a total of 1,500 vesicle generations within fourteen days.

Scientists found that some vesicles survived the generation change since they had embedded specific protein precursors from the primordial soup into their membrane. This made them increasingly steady, smaller, and—above all—their membrane became marginally more permeable.

Chemist Christian Mayer from the Center for Nanointegration (CENIDE) said, “We concluded that this way, the vesicles were able to compensate for destructive pressure. As a survival strategy, if you will. Even if such a vesicle was destroyed, the next generation took up the protein structure. In this way, it adopted a function from its predecessors—similar to classical inheritance.”

Scientists are certain that they have at least shown the way to a preliminary stage of life.

Geologist Ulrich Schreiber, also a professor at the UDE, said, “As we have simulated in time-lapse, billions of years ago, such vesicles might have become stable enough to come to the surface during geyser eruptions. Over time, other functions might have been added until the first cell was formed.”

Mayer summarizes: “We suspect that this type of molecular evolution in depth took place parallel to other mechanisms or temporally displaced from them.”

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