Origin & Evolution of Life: January 2013

This week, fizzy ocean water and the alkaline fluid that bubbles up from deep ocean vents are coursing through a structure at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. that is reminiscent of the pillared Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. Scientists with the NASA Astrobiology Institute's JPL Icy Worlds team have built this series of glass tubes, thin barrels and valves with a laser and a detector system. The set-up mimics the conditions at hydrothermal vents at the bottom of Earth's ocean and also detects compounds coming out of it. They want to see if sending these two liquids through a sample of rock that simulates ancient volcanic ocean crust can lead to the formation of simple organic molecules such as ethane and methane, and amino acids, biologically important organic molecules. Scientists have long considered these compounds the precursor ingredients for what later led to chains of RNA, DNA and microbes.

A group of researchers at JPL, including senior geologist Mike Russell, Icy Worlds Principal Investigator Isik Kanik, postdoctoral fellow Laurie Barge, graduate student Lauren White and visiting scholar Takazo Shibuya, have been testing this "origin of life" theory in a refrigerator-sized apparatus at an annex to the Microdevices Laboratory at JPL. The latest segment of the experiment, which is running this week, will track the transformation of carbon molecules into the hydrocarbons methane and ethane. Scientists want to know where the carbon for the organic molecules originates.