Biosignatures & Paleobiology

Prebiotic Chemistry Has Been Observed Around Shallow-Sea Vents

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
February 5, 2023
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Prebiotic Chemistry Has Been Observed Around Shallow-Sea Vents
The Bain des Japonais Spring, an intertidal hydrothermal vent on Prony Bay. Note shimmering where fluids are mixing with seawater. ROY PRICE

NASA-supported Astrobiologists have revealed that alkaline hydrothermal vents in shallow seas could have been a favorable environment for the chemistry leading up to the origin of life on the early Earth.

One of the biggest questions in astrobiology is, where did life first originate on our planet? Studies have looked into the possibility of life’s first cells forming in the open oceans, deep below the oceans around hydrothermal vents, or in pools of water or warm little ponds land. However, each of these environments has problems driving the chemical reactions necessary to form the molecules needed to build the first living cells.

The new study finds that shallow-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents might provide a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario for facilitating prebiotic chemistry on the early Earth, and possibly on other watery worlds. Such sites are found in relatively shallow water and release fluids with high pH. For some sites, this fluid is released in extremely hot plumes, while others vent low-temperature fluid that is diffused through sediments. So far, close to 80 shallow-sea vents have been identified on Earth.

Divers installing a funnel for the collection of hydrothermal fluids at Prony Bay. IMAGE CREDIT: ROY PRICE.

Favorable characteristics of these sites for prebiotic chemistry include bubbles, nutrient-rich material being introduced from the land, agitation from waves and storms, exposure to light, and the movement of tides. The study shows that the chemically diverse setting of shallow-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents can support many prebiotic reactions that have been proposed as necessary for the origin of life as we know it.

The study, “Diverse geochemical conditions for prebiotic chemistry in shallow-sea alkaline hydrothermal vents,” was published in the journal Nature Geoscience.


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) 🖖🏻