Charles Darwin’s original intuition that life began in a “warm little pond” has for the last three decades been eclipsed by a focus on marine hydrothermal vents as a venue for abiogenesis. However, thermodynamic barriers to polymerization of key molecular building blocks and the difficulty of forming stable membranous compartments in seawater suggest that Darwin’s original insight should be reconsidered. I will introduce the terrestrial origin of life hypothesis
, which combines field observations and laboratory results to provide a novel and testable model in which life begins as protocells assembling in inland fresh water hydrothermal fields. Hydrothermal fields are associated with volcanic landmasses resembling Hawaii and Iceland today and could plausibly have existed on similar land masses rising out of Earth’s first oceans. I will report on a field trip to the living and ancient stromatolite fossil localities of Western Australia, which provided key insights into how life may have emerged in Archaean, fluctuating fresh water hydrothermal pools, geological evidence for which has recently been discovered. Laboratory experimentation and fieldwork are providing mounting evidence that such sites have properties that are conducive to polymerization reactions and generation of membrane-bounded protocells. I will build on the previously developed coupled phases
scenario, unifying the chemical and geological frameworks and proposing that a hydrogel of stable, communally supported protocells will emerge as a candidate Woese progenote
, the distant common ancestor of microbial communities so abundant in the earliest fossil record.
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