At 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius), the vents are a bit hot for a bubble bath but, it turns out, just right for the formation of amino acids and structures that could serve as cell membranes.
Scientists suspect that deep hot vents like these might have seeded life on Earth about 4 billion years ago. Some hydrothermal vents release alkaline fluids, which could supply the energy needed to build complex organic molecules.
The vent hypothesis is somewhat controversial, but recent experiments lend weight to it. In one, NASA astrobiologist Laurie Barge and her colleagues showed how amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could have formed near alkaline vents.
[In addition, biochemist Nick] Lane used a laboratory replica of ancient deep-sea conditions to determine whether lipid-surrounded bubbles called vesicles — a sort of protocell — could form there. His team added 14 fatty acids and other chemicals, which would likely have been present in the early ocean, to acidic, simulated seawater. The scientists adjusted the liquid to be alkaline, making the chemicals go into solution. When the researchers slowly mixed the solution with seawater, the fatty acids assembled into vesicles. Vesicles formed most readily in conditions strikingly like white smokers — at 158 degrees F with strong alkalinity, the scientists reported in November in Nature Ecology & Evolution
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