Life on Earth started out in a ‘small little pond’, just like Darwin, the father of evolution, proposed more than 140 years ago, according to a provocative new study.

According to this study, the primordial cells were ‘created’ (though germinated would be a better word) in pools of condensed vapor which appeared as a result of hot water or steam bubbling towards the surface. The finding, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences challenges the ‘traditional’ view that life originated in the sea, supporting the first true theory of life origin – Darwin’s.

To come to this conclusion, researchers analyzed some key chemical markers in rocks and ancient inland and marine habitats and compared them with a genetic reconstruction of Earth’s first inhabitants. Physics Professor Dr Armen Mulkidjanian, leader of the study, discovered that oceans did not have the right balance of elements to foster life, and instead, found the perfect balance for a ‘hatchery’ inland, especially in places like hot springs and geysers, or where volcanic activity can actively vent hot vapors from beneath the surface.

Researchers noted that these ‘cradles of life’ share all the advantages of the deep sea environment, and also have one crucial advantage: the presence of organic matter. Other scientists seem quite convinced by this study. Prof Mulkidjanian, of Osnabruck University in Germany:

‘I do not think the oceans were a favourable environment for the origin of life – freshwater ponds seem more favourable,’ Nobel laureate Jack Szostak at Harvard University told New Scientist.
‘Freshwater ponds have lower salt concentrations, which would allow for fatty acid based membranes to form.’

Basically similar to Darwin’s idea, this model suggests that life originated on earth and then quickly migrated to the sea. As Darwin put it in a legendary letter to English botanist Joseph Hooker, life may have begun in a ‘a warm little pond’. He then writes:

‘Geochemical reconstruction shows the ionic (chemical) composition conducive to the origin of cells could not have existed in marine settings but is compatible with emissions of vapour-dominated zones of inland geothermal systems. ‘The pre-cellular stages of evolution might have transpired in shallow ponds of condensed and cooled geothermal vapour that were lined with porous silicate minerals mixed with metal sulfides and phosphorous compounds.’

Who said Darwin couldn’t teach us anything new?

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