Tuesday, September 21, 2010

[Geology2] Hydrothermal Vents and the Origins of Life

Hydrothermal Vents and the Origins of Life

A hilly green campus in Washington, D.C. houses two departments of the
Carnegie Institution for Science: the Geophysical Laboratory and the
named Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. When the institution was
founded, in 1902, measuring the earth's magnetic field was a pressing
need for makers of nautical maps.

Now, the people who work here--people like Bob Hazen--have more
fundamental concerns. Hazen and his colleagues are using the
institution's "pressure bombs"--breadbox-size metal cylinders that
squeeze and heat minerals to the insanely high temperatures and
pressures found inside the earth--to
decipher nothing less than the origins of life. Hazen, a mineralogist,
is investigating how the first organic
chemicals--the kind found in living things--formed and then found each
other nearly four billion years ago.

He began this research in 1996, about two decades after scientists
discovered hydrothermal vents--cracks in the deep ocean floor where
water is heated to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit by molten rock. The
vents fuel strange underwater ecosystems inhabited by giant worms,
blind shrimp and sulfur-eating bacteria. Hazen and his colleagues
believed the
complex, high-pressure vent environment--with rich mineral deposits and
fissures spewing hot water into cold--might be where life began.

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