Review

Hydrothermal vents and the origin of life

  • Nature Reviews Microbiology 6, 805814 (2008)
  • doi:10.1038/nrmicro1991
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Abstract

Submarine hydrothermal vents are geochemically reactive habitats that harbour rich microbial communities. There are striking parallels between the chemistry of the H2–CO2 redox couple that is present in hydrothermal systems and the core energy metabolic reactions of some modern prokaryotic autotrophs. The biochemistry of these autotrophs might, in turn, harbour clues about the kinds of reactions that initiated the chemistry of life. Hydrothermal vents thus unite microbiology and geology to breathe new life into research into one of biology's most important questions — what is the origin of life?

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. F. Allen, N. Lane and C. Schmidt for comments. M.J.R. is supported by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, through a contract from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. D.K. and J.B. are supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (grant number OCE-0137206) and a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Exploration. J.B. received additional support from the NASA Astrobiology Institute through the Cornegie Geophysical Institute. W.M. is supported, in part, by a Julius-von-Haast Fellowship from the government of New Zealand and by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Institut für Botanik III, Heinrich-Heine Universität Düsseldorf, 40225 Düsseldorf, Germany.

    • William Martin
  2. School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA.

    • John Baross
    •  & Deborah Kelley
  3. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA.

    • Michael J. Russell

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to William Martin.

Supplementary information

Glossary

Consortia

Two or more different microorganisms that associate during growth to form characteristically ordered structures.

Stable isotope study

The use or analysis of stable isotopes, such as 2H, 13C or 15N, that do not undergo radioactive decay. Isotope discrimination properties of an enzymatically catalysed process can produce characteristic isotope ratios, for example 13C or 12C, that differ from those generated by various non-enzymatic processes. This provides insights into the partitioning of elements during microbial metabolism, and in geochemistry, can provide insights into the biological and geological source of substances such as CH4.

Chemiosmotic coupling

The coupling of endergonic and exergonic reactions through a proton motive force. Chemiosmotic coupling results in the conservation of chemical energy. In its most familiar form, chemiosmotic coupling entails the pumping of protons from the inside of the cell to the outside of the cell as electrons are passed from a donor to an acceptor through an electron transport chain in the prokaryotic plasma membrane. This generates a pH and electrical-potential gradient across the plasma membrane known as the proton motive force. The proton motif force represents electrochemical energy that can be harnessed in various ways, but the best-known of these involves ATPases, also called coupling factors, which synthesize ATP from ADP and inorganic phosphate as protons pass through them to re-enter the cytoplasm.