The violent environment of the origin of life: Progress and uncertainties

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Abstract

Dating of terrestrial fossils and returned lunar samples reveals that the origin of life on Earth occurred not in a quiescent, peaceful environment, but rather in a violent, impact-ridden one. This realization has important consequences. On the one hand, sufficiently large and fast impactors can erode planetary atmospheres, and the very largest of these may have sterilized the surface of the Earth. In this regard, deep-sea hydrothermal vents become especially interesting for the history of early life, as they provide an environment protected against all but the greatest impact devastation. At the same time, impactors would have been delivering key biogenic elements (such as carbon and nitrogen) to Earth's surface, and (with much greater difficulty) intact organic molecules as well. Estimates of the various sources of prebiotic organics suggest that the heavy bombardment either produced or delivered quantities of organics comparable to those produced by other energy sources. However, substantial uncertainties exist. After reviewing the current understanding of the role of the heavy bombardment in the origins of life, a number of remaining key uncertainties are considered, and attempts are made to both quantify their magnitude and point to means of resolving them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3351-3358
Number of pages8
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Volume57
Issue number14
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1993
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology

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