Step 4: Life Began in the Icy Orbit of Pluto

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“You could say that the universe is in the business of making life – or that God is an organic chemist.”
~ Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma, “Seeds of Life”, Omni Magazine Interview, 1983

Quoting from Earth Mother Our Womb of Life:

On July 21, 1986, more than 260 scientists from over 20 nations gathered in California to discuss the origin of life on Earth. Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma, director of the chemical evolution laboratory of the University of Maryland, expressed the opinion of everyone present when he said, “… The processes which led to life on Earth must have started elsewhere in the universe…”

It is common knowledge that the conditions prevailing in the Earth’s present position (approximately 149 ½ million km. from the sun) are unsuitable for the formation of life. Any search for the origins of humanity has to look for a place with much colder conditions, and with an atmosphere of hydrogen and hydrogen compounds. The most plausible explanation is that terrestrial life is a phenomenon which originated in an outlying orbit of the Solar System, where microorganisms were gathered by the convolutions of the Earth and packed into hard ice – conditions perfect for the preservation of organic material.

Screenshot of the BBC webpage on Snowball Earth, which include a number of explanatory videos.

Screenshot of the BBC webpage on Snowball Earth, which includes a number of explanatory videos.

dropstone NamibiaThe scientific theory, “Snowball Earth” says the Earth was once covered in ice.  Geologists Paul Hoffman and Dan Schrag found ‘dropstones’ in Namibia, Africa. Dropstones are rocks and boulders believed to have been dropped into sediment from icebergs. The fact that so many are found in the hot dry deserts of Namibia led them to propose an ice-age existed which extended as far south as the equator. There is a dedicated website by the U.S. National Science Foundation (Geology & Paleontology Division) which explores the theory: Snowballearth.org

Scientists have come to believe the first life forms evolved in ‘Snowball Earth’. Below are extracts from a very informative and fascinating article in Discover Magazine, February 2008, entitled: Did Life Evolve in Ice?  The article brings together the work of chemists, physicists and astro-biologists who all arrived independently at the notion that the “funky properties of frozen water may have made life possible.

Discover Magazine February 2008

Discover Magazine February 2008

“For decades, those studying the origin of life have imagined that it emerged in balmy conditions from primordial soups, tropical ponds, even boiling volcanic vents. Miller [Stanley L. Miller, renowned origin of life chemist] and and a few other scientists began to suspect that life began not in warmth but in ice—at temperatures that few living things can now survive. The very laws of chemistry may have favored ice, says Bada [Jeffery Bada, chemist and astrobiologist], now at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “We’ve been arguing for a long time,” he says, “that cold conditions make much more sense, chemically, than warm conditions.”

*****

… strange things happen when you freeze chemicals in ice. Some reactions slow down, but others actually speed up—especially reactions that involve joining small molecules into larger ones. This seeming paradox is caused by a process called eutectic freezing. As an ice crystal forms, it stays pure: Only molecules of water join the growing crystal, while impurities like salt or cyanide are excluded. These impurities become crowded in microscopic pockets of liquid within the ice, and this crowding causes the molecules to collide more often. Chemically speaking, it transforms a tepid seventh-grade school dance into a raging molecular mosh pit.

“Usually as you cool things, the reaction rates go down,” concluded Leslie Orgel, who studied the origins of life at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, from the 1960s until his death last October. “But with eutectic freezing, the concentrations go up so fast that they more than make up” for the difference.

“The strong point of freezing,” according to Orgel, “is that you concentrate things very efficiently without evaporation.” Freezing also helps preserve fragile molecules like nucleobases, extending their lifetime from days to centuries and giving them time to accumulate and perhaps organize into something more interesting—like life.

Orgel and his coworkers proposed these ideas in 1966, when he showed that frozen cyanide efficiently assembles into larger molecules. Alan Schwartz, a biochemist at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, took the idea further when he showed in 1982 that frozen cyanide, in the presence of ammonia, can form a nucleobase called adenine.

*****

Hauke Trinks and wildlife on the beach of Nordaustland

Hauke Trinks and local wildlife on the beach of Nordaustland, far north of the Arctic Circle, where he went to study the evolution of life in sea ice – similar conditions to prehistoric ‘Snowball Earth’. Credit: Marie Tieche

[Pre-historic] Earth may have cooled to an average surface temperature of –40°F and a crust of ice as much as 1,000 feet thick may have covered the oceans. Many scientists have puzzled over how life could have arisen on a planet that was essentially a giant snowball. The answer, Trinks [Hauke Trinks, physicist at Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg in Germany] suspected, involved sea ice.

Trinks had become interested in sea ice 10 years before, while studying its tendency to accumulate pollutants from the atmosphere and concentrate them in liquid pockets within the ice. He set out to explore whether a layer of ice covering early Earth’s oceans might have gathered and assembled organic molecules.”…

By the time Trinks returned to Hamburg in 2003, he had formulated a theory that ice was doing much more than just concentrating chemicals. The ice surface is a checkerboard of positive and negative charges; he imagined those charges grabbing individual nucleobases and stacking them like Pringles in a can, helping them coalesce into a chain of RNA. “The surface layer between ice and liquid is very complicated,” he says. “There is strong bonding between the surface of the ice and the liquid. Those bondings are important for producing long organic chains like RNA.”

At a lecture in Hamburg in 2003, Trinks met up with chemist Christof Biebricher, who was studying how the first RNA chains could have formed in the absence of the enzymes that guide their formation in living cells. Trinks approached Biebricher with his sea ice theory, but to Biebricher, the experiments to test it sounded messy—more like a margarita recipe than a serious scientific investigation. “Chemists,” says Biebricher, “do not like heterogeneous substances like ice.” But Trinks convinced him to try it in his laboratory at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany.

dna-and-rnaBiebricher sealed small amounts of RNA nucleobases—adenine, cytosine, guanine—with artificial seawater into thumb-size plastic tubes and froze them. After a year, he thawed the tubes and analyzed them for chains of RNA.

For decades researchers had tried to coax RNA chains to form under all sorts of conditions without using enzymes; the longest chain formed, which Orgel accomplished in 1982, consisted of about 40 nucleobases. So when Biebricher analyzed his own samples, he was amazed to see RNA molecules up to 400 bases long. In newer, unpublished experiments he says he has observed RNA molecules 700 bases long.

*****

That is a good start, but it leaves unanswered the question: How do you get from tiny snippets of RNA to longer, well-crafted chains that could have acted as the first enzymes, doing fancy things like copying themselves. The shortest RNA enzyme chains known today are about 50 bases long; most have more than 100. To work effectively, moreover, an RNA enzyme must fold correctly, which requires exactly the right sequence of bases.

A young scientist named Alexander Vlassov stumbled upon a possible answer. He was working at SomaGenics, a biotech company in Santa Cruz, California, to develop RNA enzymes that latch on to the hepatitis C virus. His RNA enzymes were behaving strangely: They normally consisted of a single segment of RNA, but every time he cooled them below freezing to purify them, the chain of RNA spontaneously joined its ends into a circle, like a snake biting its tail. As Vlassov worked to fix the technical glitch, he noticed that another RNA enzyme, called hairpin, also acted strangely. At room temperature, hairpin acts like scissors, snipping other RNA molecules into pieces. But when Vlassov froze it, it ran in reverse: It glued other RNA chains together end to end.

Vlassov and his coworkers, Sergei Kazakov and Brian Johnston, realized that the ice was driving both enzymes to work in reverse. Normally when an enzyme cuts an RNA chain in two, a water molecule is consumed in the process, and when two RNA chains are joined, a water molecule is expelled. By removing most of the liquid water, the ice creates conditions that allow the RNA enzyme to work in just one direction, joining RNA chains. The SomaGenics scientists wondered whether an icy spot on early Earth could have driven a primitive enzyme to do the same. 

*****

Miller died on May 20, 2007, but the provocative theory he helped nurture lives on. In the latest twist, Miller’s ideas are influencing not just theories about life’s origin on Earth but also investigations about the potential for life elsewhere in the solar system. 

LIFE UNDER ANTARCTIC’S ICE

In January 2013, a drill cut half a mile through the Antarctic Ice Sheet to Subglacial Lake Whillans.

In January 2013, a drill cut half a mile through the Antarctic Ice Sheet to Subglacial Lake Whillans.

The July 2013 issue of Discover Magazine has the article “Life Under Antarctic’s Ice”, which explains how a group of scientists discovered a subglacial lake half a mile under Antarctica, containing something no one thought was possible – life!

“On Jan. 28, Trista Vick-Majors, one of Priscu’s Ph.D. students, took a long-awaited step: She added DNA-sensitive dye to a sample of lake water — the first attempt to detect life in Lake Whillans. As she viewed it through a microscope, she saw specks of green shining against a background of black — cells glowing in response to the dye — as many as 1.6 million cells in each cubic inch of water. Those cells were the first ever found unambiguously in a subglacial lake.”

They thought life was impossible in the subglacial lake, not just because of the cold, but the lack of sunlight.

The location of subglacial Lake Whillans West Antarctic Ice Sheet

The location of subglacial Lake Whillans West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Credit: Discover magazine

“Only the upper 10 to 30 feet of water in these lakes was frozen as ice, so sunlight filtered through, allowing life to power itself through photosynthesis. But a lake as deeply buried as Vostok [another subglacial lake] would be entirely dark, so any life there would have to use some other energy source. At that time, the question of what life might inhabit Lake Vostok was becoming increasingly relevant to people who were looking for life elsewhere in the solar system.”

pluto_core

Pluto with its Core

This is a common notion – that life requires the Sun. I recently took a university short course on eco-systems and I was surprised at how the literature gave solar energy as the only source for life. Yet this completely overlooks life found in the deep oceans near volcanic vents and the numerous translucent and blind life forms found in deep caves – who have never seen sunlight. Heat and energy coming from the Earth’s Core have been shown to provide the necessary energy for life (see video below). In the orbit of Pluto, where sunlight is limited, the planet’s Core provides the heat and energy for life to develop.

In this post I have provided evidence that:
  • Earth was once covered in ice,
  • life is believed to have evolved in ice, and
  • present day icy conditions on Earth show an abundance of simple life forms, in particular single-cell organisms – even when there is no sunlight.

But it is not enough to say that life began on an icy cold Earth – but rather the Earth was icy cold because it was once in the orbit of Pluto. Perhaps it is best to look at the Pluto itself to see if it can offer us any information:

The video above from Space Telescope Science Institute was published in 2010. I include it here because astronomers have unexpectedly discovered that Pluto is not “ just an over sized snowball, but a dramatically dynamic world”. Quoting from the video:

“Pluto got redder, markedly redder, just over that very short time span [1994-2002].” ~ Marc Buie, astronomer Southwest Research Institute. “I was expecting that if we would see any change at all it would be very, very subtle and instead it seems like Pluto is changing perhaps a little faster than I would have expected.” ~ Will Grundy, astronomer, Lowell Observatory. What Pluto’s changing landscape means is anybody’s guess.

“We can no longer interpret what we are seeing as the result of a static surface that’s just changing in the direction we’re looking at it. We really have to have change taking place on the surface to explain the observations.” ~Buie “Observations that hint the Pluto is not just an over sized snowball, but a dramatically dynamic world on the solar system’s final frontier.”

New Horizons - an unmanned Pluto-Kuiper Belt probe

New Horizons – an unmanned Pluto-Kuiper Belt probe

The more we learn about Pluto the more we discard old ideas – the difficulty is figuring out new explanations to replace our old ones. In 2015 an unmanned space probe, New Horizons, will pass by and photograph Pluto and hopefully provide new information. Quoting from a BBC article entitled: “Pluto’s dynamic surface revealed by Hubble images“:

“Alan Stern, who is principal investigator on the mission, said that with every great planetary reconnaissance mission “we have always learnt that when we get there, we are blown away by how primitive our ideas were from blurry images taken from Earth.

He told BBC News: “When we get there, the odds are very high that we will have so much more information and rich detail that all our views circa 1990 and 2000 and 2010 will appear antiquated. That’s why I don’t like to make predictions.”

He added: “No one predicted river valleys on Mars, or volcanoes on the Galilean satellites, or that Mercury was mostly a core and little else. It’s entirely likely that Pluto will be something so surprising that everything we’ve done so far looks quaint in comparison.”

I hope the evidence I presented here gives you cause to think that there is more to our Solar System than we currently believe. Quoting the last paragraph from “Did Life Evolve In Ice?“:

“If life arose in ice on Earth, then why not on Mars, Europa, or Enceladus? “You’ve got to keep an open mind in this business,” Bada says. “If I were going to make a bet about what we’d find if we discover life elsewhere in the universe, I would suspect it would be more cold-adapted than hot-adapted.” “

This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Image released - February 2010. Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Bule (Southwest Research Institute)

This is the most detailed view to date of the entire surface of the dwarf planet Pluto, as constructed from multiple NASA Hubble Space Telescope photographs taken from 2002 to 2003. The center disk (180 degrees) has a mysterious bright spot that is unusually rich in carbon monoxide frost. Image released – February 2010.
Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Bule (Southwest Research Institute)

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