Origins of life and evolution of the biosphere

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 19–41 | Cite as

Hydrothermal and oceanic pH conditions of possible relevance to the origin of life

  • Gordon Macleod
  • Christopher McKeown
  • Allan J. Hall
  • Michael J. Russell


Because of the continuous focusing of thermal and chemical energy, ancient submarine hot springs are contenders as sites for the origin of life. But it is generally assumed that these would be of the acid and high-temperature ‘black smoker’ variety (Corlisset al., 1981). In fact today the greater part of the ocean circulates through off-ridge springs where it issues after modification at temperatures of around 40 °C or so but with the potential to reach 200 °C. Such offridge or ridge-flank springs remind us that there are other candidate sites for the origin of life. Although there is no firm indication of the pH of these off-ridge springs we have argued that the solutions are likely to be alkaline rather than acid.

We test the feasibility of this idea using EQ geochemical water-rock interaction modelling codes (Wolery 1983) and find that for a range of possible initial chemistries of Hadean seawater, the pH of issuing solutions at around 200 °C is around one or more units alkaline. Such pH values hold for interaction with both basaltic and komatiitic crust. The robustness of this result suggests to us that alkaline submarine springs of moderate temperature, carrying many hundreds of ppm HS to the ocean basins, are also serious contenders as sites for the origin of life, particularly as Hadean seawater was probably slightly acid, with a dissolved iron concentration approaching 100 ppm. On mixing of these solutions, supersaturation, especially of iron sulphide, would lead to the precipitation of colloidal gels. In our view iron sulphide was the likely substance of, or contributor to, the first vesicle membranes which led to life, as the supply of organic molecules would have been limited in the Hadean. Such a membrane would have had catalytic properties, expansivity, and would have maintained the natural chemiosmotic gradient, a consequence of the acid ocean and the alkaline interior to the vesicles.


Supersaturation Ocean Basin Acid Ocean Modelling Code Candidate Site 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gordon Macleod
    • 1
  • Christopher McKeown
    • 1
  • Allan J. Hall
    • 1
  • Michael J. Russell
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Geology & Applied GeologyUniversity of GlasgowGlasgowScotland, UK

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