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Journal Articles Astrobiology Year : 2014

The Drive to Life on Wet and Icy Worlds


This paper presents a reformulation of the submarine alkaline hydrothermal theory for the emergence of life in response to recent experimental findings. The theory views life, like other self-organizing systems in the Universe, as an inevitable outcome of particular disequilibria. In this case, the disequilibria were two: (1) in redox potential, between hydrogen plus methane with the circuit-completing electron acceptors such as nitrite, nitrate, ferric iron, and carbon dioxide, and (2) in pH gradient between an acidulous external ocean and an alkaline hydrothermal fluid. Both CO2 and CH4 were equally the ultimate sources of organic carbon, and the metal sulfides and oxyhydroxides acted as protoenzymatic catalysts. The realization, now 50 years old, that membrane-spanning gradients, rather than organic intermediates, play a vital role in life's operations calls into question the idea of “prebiotic chemistry.” It informs our own suggestion that experimentation should look to the kind of nanoengines that must have been the precursors to molecular motors—such as pyrophosphate synthetase and the like driven by these gradients—that make life work. It is these putative free energy or disequilibria converters, presumably constructed from minerals comprising the earliest inorganic membranes, that, as obstacles to vectorial ionic flows, present themselves as the candidates for future experiments.

Dates and versions

hal-01493520 , version 1 (21-03-2017)



Michael J. Russell, Laura Barge, Rohit Bhartia, Dylan Bocanegra, Paul Bracher, et al.. The Drive to Life on Wet and Icy Worlds . Astrobiology, 2014, ASTROBIOLOGY, 14, pp.308-343. ⟨10.1089/ast.2013.1110⟩. ⟨hal-01493520⟩


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