Submarine hydrothermal vents and associated gradient environments as sites for the origin and evolution of life

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Abstract

Submarine hydrothermal vents are the only comtemporary geological environment which may be called truly primeval; they continue to be a major source of gases and dissolved elements to the modern ocean as they were to the Archean ocean. Then, as now, they encompassed a multiplicity of physical and chemical gradients as a direct result of interactions between extensive hydrothermal activity in the Earth's crust and the overlying oceanic and atmospheric environments. We have proposed that these gradients provided the necessary multiple pathways for the abiotic synthesis of chemical compounds, origin and evolution of ‘precells’ and ‘precell’ communities and, ultimately, the evolution of free-living organisms. This hypothesis is consistent with the tectonic, paleontological, and degassing history of the earth and with the use of thermal energy sources in the laboratory to synthesize amino acids and complex organic compounds. In this paper, we expand upon the geophysical, chemical, and possible microbiological analogies between contemporary and Archean hydrothermal systems and suggest several hypotheses, related to our model for the origin and evolution of life at Archean vents, which can be tested in present-day hydrothermal systems.