Journal of Molecular Evolution

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 231–243 | Cite as

A hydrothermally precipitated catalytic iron sulphide membrane as a first step toward life

  • Michael J. Russell
  • Roy M. Daniel
  • Allan J. Hall
  • John A. Sherringham


We propose that life emerged from growing aggregates of iron sulphide bubbles containing alkaline and highly reduced hydrothermal solution. These bubbles were inflated hydrostatically at sulphidic submarine hot springs sited some distance from oceanic spreading centers four billion years ago. The membrane enclosing the bubbles was precipitated in response to contact between the spring waters and the mildly oxidized, acidic and iron-bearing Hadean ocean water. As the gelatinous sulphide bubbles aged and were inflated beyond their strength they budded, producing contiguous daughter bubbles by the precipitation of new membrane. [Fe2S2]+/0 or [Fe4S4]2+/+ clusters, possibly bonded by hydrothermal thiolate ligands as proferredoxins, could have catalyzed oxidation of thiolates to disulphides, thereby modifying membrane properties.

We envisage the earliest iron sulphide bubbles (pro botryoids) first growing by hydrostatic inflation with hydrothermal fluid, but evolving to grow mainly by osmosis (the protocellular stage), driven by (1) catabolism of hydrothermal abiogenic organics trapped on the inner walls of the membrane, catalyzed by the iron sulphide clusters; and (2) cleavage of hydrophobic compounds dissolved in the membrane to hydrophilic moieties which were translocated, by the proton motive force inherent in the acidic Hadean ocean, to the alkaline interior of the protocell. The organics were generated first within the hydrothermal convective system feeding the hot springs operating in the oceanic crust and later in the pyritizing mound developing on the sea floor, as a consequence of the reduction of CO, CO2, and formaldehyde by Fe2+- and S2−-bearing minerals.

We imagine the physicochemical interactions in and on the membrane to have been sufficiently complex to have engendered auto- and cross-catalytic replication. The membrane may have been constructed in such a way that a “successful” parent could have “informed” the daughters of membrane characteristics functional for the then-current level of evolution.

Key words

Botryoid Chemiosmosis Ferredoxin Greigite Hydrothermal Iron sulphides Membrane Origin of life Protocell Proton motive force 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael J. Russell
    • 1
  • Roy M. Daniel
    • 2
  • Allan J. Hall
    • 2
  • John A. Sherringham
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Geology and Applied GeologyUniversity of GlasgowScotlandUK
  2. 2.Department of Biological Sciences, School of Science and TechnologyThe University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand

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