Friday, May 13, 2005

New Theory on Beginning of Life

So, I am sitting back and watching the tele, channel surfing between various shows when I stumble on Bill Nye on the 100 Greatest Discoveries on the Discover Channel HD. He is talking to a scientist who deals with the lifeforms on the hydrothermal vents on the bottom of the ocean or black smokers, that run through the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans like the stitches on a baseball. This ecosystem has fascinated me ever since I rented a DVD from Netflix created by Blue Planet on it.

This ecosystem is unique because it is not based on the sun's energy to sustain life but rather energy from the earth's core. The bacteria down there use chemosynthesis and use hydrogen sulfide and other chemicals as enjoy sources rather than the bacteria and plants on the earth's surface that use photosynthesis to capture the energy in sunlight. The thermal vents ecosystem supports clams and sponges and fish all from this bacteria that can make use of the chemical energy in methane, hydrogen sulfide and other chemicals.

But, I knew most of that before I watched the show. Then the guy starts blowing me away. First he says that there is more biomass (total weight of the biological matter) that exists in these deep water hydrothermal vents then the rest of the world combined! The amazing thing is that no one knew these hydrothermal vents supported life until 1977. So until 1977 we were completely ignorant of over 1/2 the life on the earth. Really makes you wonder what else we don't know.

Then he says that it is possible that life on earth started in these deep sea hydrothermal vents rather than on the surface. It makes sense because this is a stable environment that would have been easier to start in vs. the surface where the sun only shines for 1/2 the day. I also find it ironic that they always refer to this environment as being "toxic" due to the hydrogen sulfide and methane and high acidity. That's right, the place where all life potentially began was in a "toxic" environment.

Then he says that scientists are now looking for life on other planets in areas similar to these hydrothermal vents. One of the moons of Saturn has such an environment, and possibly has life. That is pretty mind blowing stuff. Scientists don't even know about this until 1977 and now we know they have more biomass than the rest of the world, it is potentially the origin of life on earth, and it could allow life on other planets to exist. Wow!


viral said...

holy smokers! ;-)

Donna said...

An article from the June 2004 Discover magazine might also interest you. "What Came Before DNA" by Carl Zimmer. They talk about the mechanisms that may have churned the first life forms based on RNA, not DNA. Definitely worth the trip to the library to check it out.

You can also check out the research site at

Nipun said...

Wow. This makes me thinks about how innovation happens. Most of the time, we are looking for the predictable white swans ... but really history happens with Black Swans.

Nassim Taleb, a mathematician and stock trader, writes:

"The Black Swan is defined as a random event satisfying the following three properties: large impact, incomputable probabilities, and surprise effect. First, it carries upon its occurrence a disproportionately large impact. The impact being extremely large, no matter how low the associated probability, the expected effect (the impact times its probability), if quantified, would be significant. Second, its incidence has a small but incomputable probability based on information available prior to its incidence. Third, a vicious property of a Black Swan is its surprise effect: at a given time of observation there is no convincing element pointing to an increased likelihood of the event."


"Much of what happens in history comes from 'Black Swan dynamics', very large, sudden, and totally unpredictable 'outliers', while much of what we usually talk about is almost pure noise. Our track record in predicting those events is dismal; yet by some mechanism called the hindsight bias we think that we understand them. We have a bad habit of finding 'laws' in history (by fitting stories to events and detecting false patterns); we are drivers looking through the rear view mirror while convinced we are looking ahead."

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