Open Questions on the Origin of Life at Anoxic Geothermal Fields
We have recently reconstructed the ‘hatcheries’ of the first cells by combining geochemical analysis with phylogenomic scrutiny of the inorganic ion requirements of universal components of modern cells (Mulkidjanian et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 109:E821–830, 2012). These ubiquitous, and by inference primordial, proteins and functional systems show affinity to and functional requirement for K+, Zn2+, Mn2+, and phosphate. Thus, protocells must have evolved in habitats with a high K+/Na+ ratio and relatively high concentrations of Zn, Mn and phosphorous compounds. Geochemical reconstruction shows that the ionic composition conducive to the origin of cells could not have existed in marine settings but is compatible with emissions of vapor-dominated zones of inland geothermal systems. Under an anoxic, CO2-dominated atmosphere, the ionic composition of pools of cool, condensed vapor at anoxic geothermal fields would resemble the internal milieu of modern cells. Such pools would be lined with porous silicate minerals mixed with metal sulfides and enriched in K+ ions and phosphorous compounds. Here we address some questions that have appeared in print after the publication of our anoxic geothermal field scenario. We argue that anoxic geothermal fields, which were identified as likely cradles of life by using a top-down approach and phylogenomics analysis, could provide geochemical conditions similar to those which were suggested as most conducive for the emergence of life by the chemists who pursuit the complementary bottom-up strategy.