Lightning on volcanoes sparked Earth’s life origins

Although some scientists previously believed that life originated in space, a new study indicates that it originated on Earth.

Extreme levels of nitrogen emitted by lightning striking volcanic eruptions in what is now Turkey, Peru, and Italy stimulated the emergence of the earliest life forms, according to research from Sorbonne University in Paris.

When nitrogen combines with lightning strikes, it reacts with oxygen to produce nitrogen oxide, which is subsequently discharged into the soil, continuing to support and generate life.

The presence of significant quantities of atmospheric nitrates in samples collected from three ancient volcanic sites indicated that the elements did not originate from the volcanoes themselves but were transported to the formation by lightning.

“Upon examining the various possibilities, volcanic lightning emerged as the most probable explanation,” said Slimane Bekki, the study’s primary author, to NewScientist.

“We are aware that substantial lightning strikes coincide with enormous volcanic eruptions,” he continued.

Volcanic lightning typically occurs during the onset of a volcanic eruption and can be observed in two distinct locations: in the stratosphere, close to the Earth’s surface, within ash clouds, and as a column of volcanic smoke.

Volcanic Lightning and Life’s Genesis

Bekki et al. embarked on a journey that encompassed southern Peru, central Turkey, and a volcanic island near Naples, Italy.

Ancient volcanic deposits are recognized in those areas. Upon discovering significant quantities of nitrates in the soil, investigations determined that the nitrates originated from the atmosphere and not the volcano.

The study’s authors stated, “In fact, nitrate generated by lightning strikes across the globe is dispersed across the Earth’s surface, whereas volcanic deposits are rapidly formed locally and, based on our findings, may contain substantial quantities of fixed N [nitrogen], essential for life’s development.” The study was obtained from the Courthouse News Service.

Nitrogen, the most abundant element in the universe and the Earth’s atmosphere, has been demonstrated by previous studies that lightning, whether generated by a thunderstorm or a volcanic eruption, can form nitrates under favorable conditions.

Scientists ruled out lightning from thunderstorms as the origin of life, however, due to the minute quantities of nitrogen it generates.

The study stated, “Our findings suggest that subaerial explosive eruptions may have played a unique role in providing essential ingredients for the emergence of life on Earth.”

Amino acids, fundamental for the formation of ancient microorganisms, were discharged into the soil when nitrogen oxide was produced by the volcanic lightning, according to a separate investigation by scientists from Johns Hopkins and Charles University in the Czech Republic.

Tracing Life’s Ancient Origins

Stephen Fried, co-leader of the research and a chemist at Johns Hopkins, explained, “The reason why you find the same amino acids in every organism, from bacteria to archaea, is because everything on Earth is connected through this tree of life, which has an origin, an organism that was the ancestor of all living things.”

“We are delineating the sequence of events that influenced the amino acid composition of that ancestor.”

There are numerous hypotheses regarding the origin of life on Earth.

However, three prevailing theories exist: life originated from the elemental and gaseous components of early oceans and pools on Earth; meteorites transported living organisms to Earth; and meteorites merely delivered the fundamental chemical components of life, not life itself.

In December, experts in analytical chemistry and astrobiology informed that a combination of the first and third hypotheses is the most likely explanation.

The fundamental components of life, according to them, were transported from space by meteorites and sprang into existence in the primordial soup of shallow seas and pools on early Earth.

Nevertheless, the initial empirical evidence that life formation did not result from the volcanic eruption per se, but rather from the volcanic lightning that generated sufficient nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere, was unveiled in a recent study.

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