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Origin of Life’s Building Blocks in Carbon- and Nitrogen-Rich Surface Hydrothermal Vents

Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK
Cavendish Astrophysics, University of Cambridge, JJ Thomson Ave, Cambridge CB3 0HE, UK
MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Francis Crick Ave, Cambridge CB2 0QH, UK
Institute of Astronomy, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0HA, UK
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 21 December 2018 / Revised: 15 January 2019 / Accepted: 19 January 2019 / Published: 24 January 2019
PDF [654 KB, uploaded 24 January 2019]


There are two dominant and contrasting classes of origin of life scenarios: those predicting that life emerged in submarine hydrothermal systems, where chemical disequilibrium can provide an energy source for nascent life; and those predicting that life emerged within subaerial environments, where UV catalysis of reactions may occur to form the building blocks of life. Here, we describe a prebiotically plausible environment that draws on the strengths of both scenarios: surface hydrothermal vents. We show how key feedstock molecules for prebiotic chemistry can be produced in abundance in shallow and surficial hydrothermal systems. We calculate the chemistry of volcanic gases feeding these vents over a range of pressures and basalt C/N/O contents. If ultra-reducing carbon-rich nitrogen-rich gases interact with subsurface water at a volcanic vent they result in 10 3 1 M concentrations of diacetylene (C4H2), acetylene (C2H2), cyanoacetylene (HC3N), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), bisulfite (likely in the form of salts containing HSO3), hydrogen sulfide (HS) and soluble iron in vent water. One key feedstock molecule, cyanamide (CH2N2), is not formed in significant quantities within this scenario, suggesting that it may need to be delivered exogenously, or formed from hydrogen cyanide either via organometallic compounds, or by some as yet-unknown chemical synthesis. Given the likely ubiquity of surface hydrothermal vents on young, hot, terrestrial planets, these results identify a prebiotically plausible local geochemical environment, which is also amenable to future lab-based simulation. View Full-Text
Keywords: origin of life; volcanism on the early earth; hydrothermal vents origin of life; volcanism on the early earth; hydrothermal vents

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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited (CC BY 4.0).

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Rimmer, P.B.; Shorttle, O. Origin of Life’s Building Blocks in Carbon- and Nitrogen-Rich Surface Hydrothermal Vents. Life 2019, 9, 12.

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