Volcanoes: The Cradle of Life
Above: An artist's depiction of Archean eon Earth, with a pool full of cyanobacteria stromatolites!
Volcanoes are gigantic furnaces of fire and lava, hailed in human mythologies as dangerous and awe-inspiring places. However, a new study shows that volcanoes may have another role: a cradle of life.
Billions of years ago, in the Archean eon, life was struggling to survive on Earth. The surface was hot and methane clouded the world without breathable oxygen. It was not just the matter of a dangerous environment though. In order to survive and evolve, bacteria would have required RNA, a single stranded molecule that holds genetic information. Though RNA is less complicated than DNA, it's still not something that's easily made. A single RNA strand contains hundreds of letters, which all need to be placed just right to allow the process of evolution. Scientists have been confused as to what could have helped early life get this process correct, but a joint project between geologists and microbiologists have found a possible answer.
Earth was covered with volcanoes at this time and basaltic glass made from magma flows was a plentiful resource. Scientists used samples of such glass and mixed a powdered version with the chemicals needed to make RNA. Without the glass, no RNA was found but when it was added they discovered hundred letter long strands. The only thing they needed was a little help from a volcano.
There are still many questions to be answered about the development of early life. How did the compounds to make RNA first form and how did bacteria ensure the strands were made into long chains instead of a jumbled mess of genetics? However, now that we have a better understanding of this part of the process, we can begin to work backward to learn even more about life on planet Earth.