In this new episode of the Life Sciences Podcast we dive into a dark and fascinating question: what is the origin of life on our planet?
If you have been watching the BBC2 documentary series Wonders of Life presented by Prof. Brian Cox you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t watched it, allow me to say you really should; it’s a fantastic show for anyone with an interest in biology, physics… or life in general!
In the first episode we saw Brian trying to tackle the difficult question “what is life and where did it come from?”. Scientists have come up with many interesting, curious and bizarre ideas to explain how and where life first originated on our planet. From the “primordial soup” theory, first mentioned by Darwin, to the panspermic theory, stating that life might have come to Earth from space, there’s lots of ideas and very little research to actually prove or disprove any one of these. However, one of these hypotheses seems stronger than the others and has received the full attention of scientists in the past few years. I’m talking about the deep sea vent hypothesis. If you’ve never heard of hydrothermal vents, also known as “black smokers”, they look a bit like chimneys (see picture below) and are constantly releasing in the water very hot and alkaline mixes of chemical compounds containing iron, zinc, sulfur and carbon based molecules. Because the water at such depth tends to be quite acidic (and ocean water was probably more acidic that it is today in the past), a chemical gradient is found around deep sea vents, where electron donors molecules meet electron acceptor molecules, and redox reactions can take place. This, as Brian explained in Wonders of Life, is the driving force for the chemical reactions that take place in every living organism and this is why deep sea vents seem to be the perfect place for life have formed: they are hot, they are rich in chemicals and a proton gradient is formed due to the interface between alkaline and acidic environments.
So, after this short recap of episode 1 of Wonders of Life, let me tell you about today’s podcast.
I have had the pleasure to interview two fantastic people who work on this topic, although from slightly different angles. Dr. Nick Lane is a lecturer in biochemistry at UCL and author of the award winning book Life Ascending. He was, together with Matthew Cobb here at FLS, one of the science consultants for Wonders of Life. Adam Rutherford is a writer and broadcaster, you might have heard and seen him in TV and radio before and he’s currently writing a book called “Creation” which deals with the origin of life and with the future of life on our planet.
I hope you enjoy the podcast and if you do come back next week because I will be releasing a longer version of my interview to Nick and Adam for you to listen to!