Temperature oscillations near natural nuclear reactor cores and the potential for prebiotic oligomer synthesis

Abstract

Geologic settings capable of driving prebiotic oligomer synthesis reactions remain a relatively unexplored aspect of origins of life research. Natural nuclear reactors are an example of Precambrian energy sources that produced unique temperature fluctuations. Heat transfer models indicate that water-moderated, convectively-cooled natural fission reactors in porous host rocks create temperature oscillations that resemble those employed in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) devices to artificially amplify oligonucleotides. This temperature profile is characterized by short-duration pulses up to 70–100 °C, followed by a sustained period of temperatures in the range of 30–70 °C, and finally a period of relaxation to ambient temperatures until the cycle is restarted by a fresh influx of pore water. For a given reactor configuration, temperature maxima and the time required to relax to ambient temperatures depend most strongly on the aggregate effect of host rock permeability in decreasing the thermal expansion and increasing the viscosity and evaporation temperature of the pore fluids. Once formed, fission-fueled reactors can sustain multi-kilowatt-level power production for 105–106 years, ensuring microenvironmental longevity and chemical output. The model outputs indicate that organic synthesis on young planetary bodies with a sizeable reservoir of fissile material can involve more sophisticated energy dissipation pathways than modern terrestrial analog settings alone would suggest.

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Acknowledgments

Zachary Adam was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Agouron Institute.

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Adam, Z.R. Temperature oscillations near natural nuclear reactor cores and the potential for prebiotic oligomer synthesis. Orig Life Evol Biosph 46, 171–187 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11084-015-9478-6

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Keywords

  • Polymerization
  • Radiolysis
  • Oligomerization
  • Phosphate
  • Nucleoside