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RNA trapping in 3D Hadean hydrothermal submarine vent models

The question on how life emerged on Earth remains one of the biggest mysteries of mankind. Alkaline hydrothermal vents (AHVs) might have played a key role during the transition from pre-biotic chemistry to an RNA-world during the Hadean. Two major theories regarding the emergence of life on Earth are the hydrothermal vent metabolism-first (AHVs) and the information-first (RNA world) theories. It is unknown, whether these theories are mutually exclusive. This PhD project will use controlled laboratory experiments to investigate plausible scenarios, in which RNA is accumulated within the mineral matrix, that forms in AHV models under simulated Hadean ocean conditions.

AHVs are “chemical gardens” with steep eH-pH and T gradients, that would have provided potential energy for proto-life. They contain reactive mineral surfaces like Fe-sulfide and Fe-hydroxide and have a complex internal network of micropockets and channels, that might have concentrated nucleic acids.

We simulate AHVs in an anaerobic chamber containing a N2-atmosphere. The experiment mimics Hadean conditions without oxygen. The setup contains a glass vial filled with the Fe-rich, salty and mildly acidic (pH ~5.5) „ocean“. A syringe injects the alkaline hydrothermal fluid (pH 9 to 12). Chemistry, flow-rate and temperature of the fluid can be varied. As the alkaline fluid mixes with the acidic iron “ocean”, changes in pH cause iron minerals to come out of their stability fields and precipitate forming chimney structures. Different types of RNA added to the „ocean“ before the injection might accumulate inside the hydrothermal chimney.


Vanessa Helmbrecht1, William Orsi1
1Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Germany
GeoMinKöln 2022