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Submarine hot springs and the origin of life


The discovery of hydrothermal vents at oceanic ridge crests and the appreciation of their importance in the element balance of the oceans is one of the main recent advances in marine geochemistry1. It is likely that vents were present in the oceans of the primitive Earth because the process of hydrothermal circulation probably began early in the Earth's history2. Here we examine the popular hypothesis3–7 that life arose in these vents. This proposal, however, is based on a number of misunderstandings concerning the organic chemistry involved. An example is the suggestion that organic compounds were destroyed on the surface of the early Earth by the impact of asteroids and comets, but at the same time assuming that organic syntheses can occur in hydrothermal vents7. The high temperatures in the vents would not allow synthesis of organic compounds, but would decompose them, unless the exposure time at vent temperatures was short8–11. Even if the essential organic molecules were available in the hot hydrothermal waters, the subsequent steps of polymerization and the conversion of these polymers into the first organisms would not occur as the vent waters were quenched to the colder temperatures of the primitive oceans.

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Miller, S., Bada, J. Submarine hot springs and the origin of life. Nature 334, 609–611 (1988).

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