Environment History Plants and Animals

The Beginnings of Life May Lie Within Comet Craters

Comet earth life

Geochemists from the Trinity College Dublin’s School of Natural Sciences believe they may have figured out not only where, but also how life first began on Earth. Within their paper, that was published in the Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta journal, the team of geochemists discuss how large meteorite and comets altered the sea upon impact.

These massive strikes built conditions conducive to life on the planet. Synthesis of complex organic molecules occurred upon the merging of water and the heated rocks, turning the large craters into microhabitats where life was able to thrive.

Scientists have long believed that materials from meteors and comets sent raw, complex organic materials along with the amount of energy needed for synthesis to occur. These latest findings are the first to create a hypothesis that the craters created on impact were the perfect environment to promote the very first sprouts of life. Edel O’Sullivan, first author says that former studies focused on pinpointing life’s beginnings had their attention mainly on synthesis in hydrothermal environments, which are located within mid-ocean ridges. The problem with their studies is that these ridges most likely had not been created at the start of life. Sullivan’s new study shows the possibility of hydrothermal systems that were contained within a crater in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. His research was just a part of a much larger project led by Balz Kamber, professor of Geology and Mineralogy within Trinity.

Science News Journal reached out to the project leader, professor Balz Kamber, and he told us:

“The search for chemical reactors that could have produced life-forming molecules has previously focussed on rock-water interaction at so-called mid-ocean ridges. On the modern earth, this is the one place where fresh volcanic rock and shallow bodies of magma are commonly emplaced in seawater. The new study suggests that subaqueous impact structures could also provide suitable environments and that rock-water interaction at such sites needs to be studied in the context of synthesis of complex molecules.”

What makes the Sudbury hole so special is that it contains a very thick basin fill, which is black due to carbon exposure and full of hydrothermal metal deposits. This particular basis offers a rough model of what early impact craters would have looked like. Professor Kamber says tectonic forces have caused all rocks to become exposed upon the surface, altering the width of the crater. He says because of this, one would be able to explore the shocked footwall by going through the melt sheet and around the whole basin. This allows researchers the ability to better understand how time has changed the crater.

comet life
Image Credits E.M. O’Sullivan et al. / Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta

Samples were gathered across the basin fill, evaluating for carbon isotopes and overall chemistry. Upon further examination, geochemists say the crater was completely filled with seawater during its earliest years. Because the water within the basin was secluded from the ocean for so long, it deposited more than 1.5 km of volcanic rock and debris. The bottom section of the crater contains rocks that were created when water and a base still hot from impact combined. Natural reactions caused by the cooling of fuel delivered volcanic rocks and stimulated hydrothermal activity. Reduced carbon found above the rock deposits became smaller and smaller.

In the past, it wasn’t understood how carbon found its way into the rocks. The answer lied on the exterior of the crater basin. The new study also found that microbial life inside the crater basin is the reason for all of the carbon build-up as well as the decrease in nutrients. When the crater walls eventually caved in, test results showed a complete restoration of nutrients that made their way inside via the neighboring sea.

Professor Kamber also answered our question of what that meant for life on Earth, could it mean that it provided a necessary boost for rapid development of life that was already present on Earth or did it re-establish it:

“Whether basins were re-colonised by existing life forms or whether life was re-established after sterilising impacts remains an open question.”