Volcanoes and Lightning May Have Created Life

Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher and UCSD professor of marine chemistry Jeffrey Bada and colleagues are presenting a new analysis to explain the origin of life on Earth, suggesting that early volcanic eruptions may have provided the essential building blocks of life.

The theory, co-authored by Bada and Indiana University graduate student Adam Johnson, was published in a paper titled “The Miller Volcanic Spark Experiment” in the Oct. 17 issue of Science.

The theory adds to the commonly accepted primordial-soup experiment published by Stanley Miller in 1953, under whom Bada studied as a UCSD graduate student. Miller’s experiment, still used in chemistry classes today, simulated earth’s early atmosphere by circulating methane, ammonia, water vapor and hydrogen in a closed environment and sending a simulated lightning spark through it. After some time, organic compounds form, demonstrating how Earth’s primitive atmosphere may have given rise to life.

“We believed there was more to be learned from Miller’s original experiment,” said Bada, who had preserved Miller’s organic chemical samples and original lightning apparatus to follow up on Miller’s studies after his death in 2007. “We found that a modern-day version of the volcanic apparatus produces a wider variety of compounds.”

It is commonly believed that early Earth was comprised of many small volcanic islands. This study suggests that lightning and the release of gases associated with these volcanic eruptions could have produced the necessary chemical components to give rise to early life.

“Historically, you don’t get many experiments that might be more famous than these,” Johnson said. “They redefined our thoughts on the origin of life and showed unequivocally that the fundamental building blocks of life could be derived from natural processes.”