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Hydrothermal vents and the origin of life

Key Points

  • Since their discovery, hydrothermal vents have been relevant to concepts that surround the origin of life. At the simplest level, there are two kinds of hydrothermal vents: the hot (approximately 350°C) black smoker type, the chemistry of which is driven by the magma-chamber that resides below ocean-floor spreading zones, and the cooler (approximately 50–90°C) Lost City type, the chemistry of which is driven not by magma, but by a process called serpentinization.

  • Serpentinization is a H2-producing geochemical reaction that has been operation in hydrothermal systems for as long as there has been water on the Earth. Its reducing power is sufficient to generate substantial amounts of abiogenic CH4 and short hydrocarbons in the effluent of some modern hydrothermal vents.

  • In the study of the origin of life, major unresolved issues concern the source of sustained chemical energy and the source of reduced carbon compounds. The CO2-reducing geochemistry of modern hydrothermal vents provides a model for our understanding of how such processes might have been possible at the dawn of biochemistry.

  • Methanogens and acetogens satisfy their carbon needs through the acetyl-coenzyme A pathway, an energy-releasing pathway of CO2 fixation, if given sufficient environmental H2 and CO2. The authors consider the idea that the CH4-producing and acetate-producing geochemistry of hydrothermal vents is the abiogenic precursor of modern microbial CH4 and acetate production.

  • This suggests that the evolutionary starting point of microbial metabolism might have been an energy-releasing geochemical process in which CO2 served as the acceptor for electrons that stemmed from H2 generated by serpentinization. The naturally chemiosmotic nature of alkaline hydrothermal systems, such as Lost City, might be important to the origin of life issue, but in a somewhat unexpected way that, in turn, helps to explain why chemiosmotic coupling through ATPases is universal throughout the microbial world.

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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Figure 1: Global distribution of known hydrothermal vents.
Figure 2: Hydrothermal vents.
Figure 3: Chemical and biochemical reactions.

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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.

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Supplementary information

41579_2008_BFnrmicro1991_MOESM1_ESM.pdf

Supplementary information S1 (figure) | Schematic illustrating the geological, hydrothermal, chemical and biological relationships within the Lost City Hydrothermal Field. (PDF 657 kb)

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.

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Martin, W., Baross, J., Kelley, D. et al. Hydrothermal vents and the origin of life. Nat Rev Microbiol 6, 805–814 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro1991

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