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New Answers in the Search for the Origin of Life

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Eastern California’s Mono Lake has no outflow, allowing salts to build up over time. The high salts in this carbonate-rich lake can grow into pillars. Credit: Matthew Dillon/Flickr Life Could Have Emerged From Lakes With High Phosphorus Life as we know it requires phosphorus. It’s one of the six main chemical elements of life, it…

Lake Mono

Eastern California’s Mono Lake has no outflow, allowing salts to build up over time. The high salts in this carbonate-rich lake can grow into pillars. Credit: Matthew Dillon/Flickr

Life Could Have Emerged From Lakes With High Phosphorus

Life as we know it requires phosphorus. It’s one of the six main chemical elements of life, it forms the backbone of DNA and RNA molecules, acts as the main currency for energy in all cells and anchors the lipids that separate cells from their surrounding environment.

But how did a lifeless environment on the early Earth supply this key ingredient?

“For 50 years, what’s called ‘the phosphate problem,’ has plagued studies on the origin of life,” said first author Jonathan Toner, a University of Washington research assistant professor of Earth and space sciences.

The problem is that chemical reactions that make the building blocks of living things need a lot of phosphorus, but phosphorus is scarce. A new UW study, published December 30, 2019, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds an answer to this problem in certain types of lakes.

Lake Magadi

This 2007 photo shows Lake Magadi in Kenya, a carbonate-rich lake whose bed is made of volcanic rock. The lake’s salty water is rich in microbes and it attracts other life, including these flamingoes and zebras. Credit: Stig Nygaard/Flickr

The study focuses on carbonate-rich lakes, which form in dry environments within depressions that funnel water draining from the surrounding landscape. Because of high evaporation rates, the lake waters concentrate into salty and alkaline, or high-pH, solutions. Such lakes, also known as alkaline or soda lakes, are found on all seven continents.

The researchers first looked at phosphorus measurements in existing carbonate-rich lakes, including Mono Lake in California, Lake Magadi in Kenya and Lonar Lake in India.

While the exact concentration depends on where the samples were taken and during what season, the researchers found that carbonate-rich lakes have up to 50,000 times phosphorus levels found in seawater, rivers and other types of lakes. Such high concentrations point to the existence of some common, natural mechanism that accumulates phosphorus in these lakes.

Today these carbonate-rich lakes are biologically rich and support life ranging from microbes to Lake Magadi’s famous flocks of flamingoes. These living things affect the lake chemistry. So researchers did lab experiments with bottles of carbonate-rich water at different chemical compositions to understand how the lakes accumulate phosphorus, and how high phosphorus concentrations could get in a lifeless environment.

Phosphorous Levels Lakes

Colored dots show the level of phosphorus measured in different carbonate-rich lakes around the world. Existing carbonate-rich lakes can contain up to 50,000 times the levels of phosphate found in seawater, with the highest levels measured in British Columbia’s Goodenough and Last Chance lake system (yellow dots). Credit: Toner et al/PNAS

The reason these waters have high phosphorus is their carbonate content. In most lakes, calcium, which is much more abundant on Earth, binds to phosphorus to make solid calcium phosphate minerals, which life can’t access. But in carbonate-rich waters, the carbonate outcompetes phosphate to bind with calcium, leaving some of the phosphate unattached. Lab tests that combined ingredients at different concentrations show that calcium binds to carbonate and leaves the phosphate freely available in the water.

“It’s a straightforward idea, which is its appeal,” Toner said. “It solves the phosphate problem in an elegant and plausible way.”

Phosphate levels could climb even higher, to a million times levels in seawater, when lake waters evaporate during dry seasons, along shorelines, or in pools separated from the main body of the lake.

“The extremely high phosphate levels in these lakes and ponds would have driven reactions that put phosphorus into the molecular building blocks of RNA, proteins, and fats, all of which were needed to get life going,” said co-author David Catling, a UW professor of Earth & space sciences.

The carbon dioxide-rich air on the early Earth, some four billion years ago, would have been ideal for creating such lakes and allowing them to reach maximum levels of phosphorus. Carbonate-rich lakes tend to form in atmospheres with high carbon dioxide. Plus, carbon dioxide dissolves in water to create acid conditions that efficiently release phosphorus from rocks.

“The early Earth was a volcanically active place, so you would have had lots of fresh volcanic rock reacting with carbon dioxide and supplying carbonate and phosphorus to lakes,” Toner said. “The early Earth could have hosted many carbonate-rich lakes, which would have had high enough phosphorus concentrations to get life started.”

Another recent study by the two authors showed that these types of lakes can also provide abundant cyanide to support the formation of

Amino acids are a set of organic compounds used to build proteins. There are about 500 naturally occurring known amino acids, though only 20 appear in the genetic code. Proteins consist of one or more chains of amino acids called polypeptides. The sequence of the amino acid chain causes the polypeptide to fold into a shape that is biologically active. The amino acid sequences of proteins are encoded in the genes. Nine proteinogenic amino acids are called “essential” for humans because they cannot be produced from other compounds by the human body and so must be taken in as food.

“>amino acids and nucleotides, the building blocks of proteins, DNA and RNA. Before then researchers had struggled to find a natural environment with enough cyanide to support an origin of life. Cyanide is poisonous to humans, but not to primitive microbes, and is critical for the kind of chemistry that readily makes the building blocks of life.

References:

“A carbonate-rich lake solution to the phosphate problem of the origin of life” by Jonathan D. Toner and David C. Catling, 30 December 2019, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1916109117

“Alkaline lake settings for concentrated prebiotic cyanide and the origin of life” by J. D.Toner and D. C. Catling, 25 June 2019, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.


DOI: 10.1016/j.gca.2019.06.031

The research was funded by the Simons Foundation’s Collaboration on the Origins of Life.

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