Have Experts Just Solved the Origins of Life?


| LAST UPDATE 10/26/2022

By Daria Appleby
Phosphorus Life Origins Mystery
Pedro Vilela via Getty Images

In a recent study done by university students, the mystery surrounding the origins of life was potentially solved. Considered to be a massive scientific breakthrough, a specific ingredient was tested to see if it could contribute to most living forms. Here's what was found.

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Cape Town first examined the properties of phosphorus. A sudden urge came along to test exactly how impactful the chemical element is or if it lacks any key components to support our everyday living environments. Phosphorus is a vital mineral naturally found in foods and supplements. According to HSPH, the chemical element, P, participates in enzyme activation and maintains bone and teeth health while also protecting the cell membrane. More specifically, it levels our blood pH scale at a normal rate. However, phosphorus is highly reactive, so the researchers put P to the test, recreating "prehistoric seawater containing the element in the lavatory," noted SciTechDaily.

Phosphate Origins Life Mystery
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Phosphorus plays a crucial role in our DNA and RNA, essentially the "building blocks of life." Ironically, it is the least common element regarding "biological significance." Professor Nick Tosca from the University of Cambridge, who participated in authoring the study, noted, "this could really change how we think about the environments in which life first originated." The research was then led by UoC Ph.D. student Matthew Brady. They found the seawater creation potentially carried 1,000-10,000 times more Phosphorus than people thought, considering the water provided a vast majority of iron. While phosphate is "inaccessible in its mineral form," it is not so easy to dissolve in water, preventing it from practical use in natural life. The research established recent roles of the P element, contributing toward the "synthesis of molecules required by life on Earth." Tosca elaborated on the findings, "experiments show it makes amazing things happen – chemists can synthesize crucial biomolecules if there is a lot of phosphate in solution." Brady added, "it's exciting to see how simple experiments in a bottle can overturn our thinking about the conditions present on the early Earth." However, there is a dispute regarding the lab's controlled variables. According to the UoC website, "when iron is abundant, then phosphate should actually be even less accessible to life." They used the same experiment in the lab, "in an atmosphere starved of oxygen," as if it existed in early history.

To conclude, Tosca said, "this doesn't necessarily mean that life on Earth started in seawater... It opens up a lot of possibilities for how seawater could have supplied phosphate to different environments." While there was not enough evidence to prove iron was crucial to phosphates solubility, Brady believes these results should be used to "explore new alternative pathways for the evolution of life on our planet and beyond."

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