Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany
A biogeochemist finds inspiration for life on the ocean floor.
My research interests lie in understanding the interplay between the physical and chemical conditions that constrain life, and the feedback processes by which life shapes the Earth’s environment.
I want to understand these interactions in terms of a thermodynamic hypothesis that states that systems dissipate as much energy as possible. Can life be seen as an emergent outcome of this tendency for the whole Earth system? To test this, one would need to show that it is possible to predict the emergence of life from the hypothesis, as well as its impact on Earth’s early environment.
Two articles (M. J. Russell & A. J. Hall GSA Memoir 198, 1–32; 2006, and M. J. Russell Am. Sci. 94, 32–39; 2006) could provide a starting point. The authors give a detailed picture of the thermodynamics of life emerging at hydrothermal mounds on the ocean floor.
One of the earliest metabolic reactions would have involved the conversion of hydrogen, carbon dioxide and sulphur compounds into organic carbon, acetate and water. This would have happened in the hot, mineral-rich spring water seeping into the hollow mound.
But its influence would have been felt more widely. Removing sulphur from the environment would have changed atmospheric composition and cloud cover, affecting the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. And acetate may have served as fuel for methanogens, methane-producing organisms known to live in vents. Increased methane production would have raised its levels in the atmosphere, resulting in higher surface temperatures on Earth.
Quantifying these interactions should help us to understand whether the evolution of our planet emerged from general thermodynamic trends.