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April 5, 2023

Modeling Life's Origin

Geochemists have found insights into the origins of life on Earth by modeling the characteristics found on the planet's crust 4 billion years ago.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

Few minerals can hold information from 4 billion years ago as life formed on Earth, but a handful of unusual zircon crystals are providing new insights into the dawn of life. We'll travel back in time in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

Exploring the links between fluids, minerals and biological systems can provide key insights into the origins of life on earth.

Supported in part by NSF, geochemists at the University of Rochester and the University of Colorado, Boulder used the chemical records found in a unique set of zircon crystals to model the geologic environment on Earth's crust, when fluids interacted with rock to form these zircons four billion years ago.

Their modeled geologic environment revealed the presence of metals that play an important role in cellular function. In the past, researchers have hypothesized copper as a likely component in the chemistry that led to life, but that was not found in this model.

The researchers instead found high concentrations of manganese which, in modern times, helps the body form bones and assists enzymes in breaking down cholesterols and carbohydrates.

Identifying specific conditions and chemicals present as the early earth formed helps us better understand how life began and will factor into the search for life on other planets.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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