Wed, Dec 10, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Scientists recreate what might have been spark of life

AP, WASHINGTON

Scientists in a lab used a powerful laser to recreate what might have been the original spark of life on Earth.

Researchers zapped clay and a chemical soup with the laser to simulate the energy of a speeding asteroid smashing into the planet.

They ended up creating what can be considered crucial pieces of the building blocks of life.

The experiment produced all four chemical bases needed to make RNA, a simpler relative of DNA, the blueprint of life.

From these bases, there are many still-mysterious steps that must happen for life to emerge.

However, this is a potential starting point in that process.

Some scientists were unimpressed by the results, which do not actually prove that this is how life started on Earth about 4 billion years ago, a time when asteroids were bombarding our planet 10 times more frequently than before or after.

However, the experiment bolsters this particular theory.

“These findings suggest that the emergence of terrestrial life is not the result of an accident, but a direct consequence of the conditions on the primordial Earth and its surroundings,” the researchers said in the study published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists have been able to make these RNA bases other ways, using chemical mixes and pressure, but this is the first experiment to test the theory that the energy from a space crash could trigger the crucial chemical reaction, said Svatopluk Civis, lead author of the study and a professor at Heyrovsky Institute of Physical Chemistry in Prague.

Civis said the scientists used a laser almost 150m long that for a fraction of a second zapped the chemical soup with an invisible beam.

The power was so intense and concentrated that Civis said that for less than one-billionth of a second, it was equivalent to the output of a couple of nuclear power plants.

It produced what would be about 1 billion kilowatts of energy for that sliver of time over a fraction of an inch, generating heat of more than 4,200oC, the researchers said.

Some of the earliest life on Earth seemed to coincide with a period called the Late Heavy Bombardment, when the solar system’s asteroid belt was bigger and stray space rocks hit our planet more often, said David Nesvorny, study co-author and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado.

However, outside experts were divided in opinion about the importance of the experiment when questioned.

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