Journal articles

Actinides and Life's Origins

By Keith Cowing
January 2, 2008

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 852-872

There are growing indications that life began in a radioactive beach environment. A geologic framework for the origin or support of life in a Hadean heavy mineral placer beach has been developed, based on the unique chemical properties of the lower-electronic actinides, which act as nuclear fissile and fertile fuels, radiolytic energy sources, oligomer catalysts, and coordinating ions (along with mineralogically associated lanthanides) for prototypical prebiotic homonuclear and dinuclear metalloenzymes.

A four-factor nuclear reactor model was constructed to estimate how much uranium would have been required to initiate a sustainable fission reaction within a placer beach sand 4.3 billion years ago. It was calculated that about 1-8 weight percent of the sand would have to have been uraninite, depending on the weight percent, uranium enrichment, and quantity of neutron poisons present within the remaining placer minerals.

Radiolysis experiments were conducted with various solvents with the use of uraniumand thorium-rich minerals (metatorbernite and monazite, respectively) as proxies for radioactive beach sand in contact with different carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen reactants. Radiation bombardment ranged in duration of exposure from 3 weeks to 6 months. Low levels of acetonitrile (estimated to be on the order of parts per billion in concentration) were conclusively identified in 2 setups and tentatively indicated in a 3rd by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. These low levels have been interpreted within the context of a Hadean placer beach prebiotic framework to demonstrate the promise of investigating natural nuclear reactors as power production sites that might have assisted the origins of life on young rocky planets with a sufficiently differentiated crust/mantle structure.

Future investigations are recommended to better quantify the complex relationships between energy release, radioactive grain size, fissionability, reactant phase, phosphorus release, and possible abiotic production of sugars, amino acids, activated phosphorus, prototypical organometallic enzymes, and oligomer catalysts at a single putative beach site.

Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻