Did Life Originate In Brinicles? Icy Sea Stalactites Provide Environment Conducive To Emergence Of Life

May 3, 2013 in Animals & Insects, Geology & Climate

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Did life on Earth originate in the almost otherworldly environments of brinicles — the icy sea stalactites that grow near the Earth’s poles? These rather strange looking tubes of ice could very possibly have been where life on the Earth originated, according to new research published in the journal Langmuir.


It’s a common assumption that because tropical regions currently contain the greatest diversity of life, that this must be where life on the Earth originated. But the reasons for there being a greater diversity of life in the tropics, than in the polar regions, are unrelated to the origination of life.

The main reason for there being a greater diversity of life in the “tropical” environments of the world is due to the greater continuity of such an environment in the Earth’s history. Whether located in the Arctic, or around the equator, environments similar to the current environment of the tropical regions of the world have been present throughout the Earth’s history, whereas colder environments have been more temporary, coming and going from the world completely, periodically.

The period of time after the End-Permian extinction 250 million years ago serves as a good example — the Arctic then was comparable to the tropical environments of today, the tropics were much hotter than today (too hot for most life), and the polar environments of today were simply not present at all.

So to get back on track — where did life actually originate then? What sort of an environment?

That remains something of an open question.

With regards to the new research, it’s first important to note that researchers really don’t know very much about brinicles. “Bruno Escribano and colleagues explain that scientists know surprisingly little about brinicles, which are hollow tubes of ice that can grow to several yards in length around streamers of cold seawater under pack ice. That’s because brinicles are difficult to study. The scientists set out to gather more information on the topic with an analysis of the growth process of brinicles.”

What the researchers found was that they are “analogous to a ‘chemical garden’, a standby demonstration in chemistry classes and children’s chemistry sets, in which tubes grow upward from metal salts dropped into silicate solution. But brinicles grow downward from the bottom of the ice pack.”

The research concluded that “brinicles provide an environment that could well have fostered the emergence of life on Earth billions of years ago, and could have done so on other planets. Beyond Earth, the brinicle formation mechanism may be important in the context of planets and moons with ice-covered oceans.”

It’s an interesting idea, whether or not there is any “truth” to it. It’s worth noting that “life” need not have originated in only one place/time, or even for it to have originated on the Earth. Or it even could be a common feature/quality of certain types of environments, wherever they are present, ubiquitous in any of them. It’s also unnecessary to think of the conception we currently refer to as “life” as something that has an “origination” at all.

Source: American Chemical Society

Image Credits: Screen Capture

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