Chinese scientists find material in rock that ‘may show origin of life’

Stephen Chen
·4-min read

Chinese researchers have found some puzzling organic stuff in deep-sea rock that may shed new light on the origins of life.

They analysed the carbon-rich, somewhat fatty compounds to look for what life forms were involved in their formation, or a possible hint of an oil reserve.

They found none, not even a trace of bacteria. After examining all possible explanations, the researchers proposed that the organic materials could have come from nowhere and were created by the rock itself.

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The unusual rock, retrieved from 6,400 metres (21,000 feet) under the Pacific Ocean, may “generate the first building blocks for the origin of life”, said the team, led by Professor Peng Xiaotong of the Institute of Deep Sea Science and Engineering, in a paper published in journal Geology this month.

Scientific efforts to debunk the myth of life creation could be traced back to an experiment conducted by Stanley Miller, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, in 1953. The mainstream opinion then was that life-related materials could be a product only of life activities.

Miller mixed methane, ammonia and hydrogen with water and exposed the “primordial soup” to heat, electricity and ultraviolet light. A week later, he obtained amino acids and other stuff that proved organic materials could emerge from a lifeless world.

But the Earth was not a lab. There were debates over where the first organic substance on our planet appeared. Some scientists believed it could have been created in the atmosphere by volcanic activity or lightning. Others argued it may have come from the sky in meteorite rain.

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The discovery by Peng’s team may add weight to a relatively obscure theory that life came out of rocks.

The sample belonged to serpentinite, a family of rocks formed in tectonic movements, some of them from as deep below the Earth’s surface as the mantle.

The serpentinite retrieved had a large number of pores only a few nanometres wide. Peng and his colleagues said its unique structure could provide countless tiny chambers for chemical reactions between carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms to form organic compounds under a certain heat and pressure.

But Lu Hongbo, professor of geology at the China University of Petroleum, said the evidence remained inadequate.

The only consensus among the research community’s theories on the origin of life is that it happened after the formation of water, according to Lu.

Other than that, he said: “They are all just guesses. This [study] is also a guess.”

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The rock was obtained in 2017 from the Yap Trench, by Jiaolong, one of the world’s most deep-reaching manned submersibles, according to the Chinese researchers.

The Yap Trench is an underwater passageway between the archipelago of Palau and the US island territory Guam, home of the largest American military base in the western Pacific. The region is a focal point of Chinese research activity because it could be a soft spot in the so-called second island chain, a defence line defined by the US during the Cold War to contain the expansion of Chinese and Russian naval activities. Some Chinese researchers have said that their ships were sometimes followed and monitored by American spy planes.

China’s expansion into the world’s oceans has returned to full pace after being scaled back during its coronavirus outbreak. On Tuesday, Fendouzhe, a new manned submersible, touched down on the Earth’s deepest sea floor, in the Mariana Trench, according to state media reports.

The following day, the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that a new generation of deep-sea monitoring buoys had been deployed in classified locations over the Indian Ocean.

The government said the deep-sea activities were mainly for the purpose of pursuing scientific discoveries.

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