David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

Understanding how ancient electrons began life on earth

Primordial Earth exists in a small chamber in New Jersey.

Understanding how ancient electrons began life on earth
Image source: ferdinand feng/unsplash
  • Without oxygen, it's not at all clear how life's first spark came about.
  • Scientists seeking the answer are seeing if they can get nickel and models of early proteins to catalyze.
  • The solution to the riddle on Earth may also tell us about life elsewhere.

When we think about the origins of life on Earth, we think mostly of biology and chemistry. Still, when we consider the initial "spark" of life, the conversation has to include physics, energy, and electrons. "Humans get their energy from the sugars in the foods we eat. Proteins in our cells take electrons from sugar, then bind it to the oxygen we breathe in," says Rutgers' Josh Mancini. Here's a puzzle, though: This can't be what happened billions of years ago when life first began — there we no sugars from plants and so on, and more critically, there was no oxygen in which to move electrons from one place to another to produce the necessary energy.

To solve this mystery, Mancini and his colleagues are simulating primordial Earths in a small, cylindrical chamber in the Department of Marine Science and at the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine Building on Rutger's New Brunswick, NJ campus. Their NASA-funded exploration may also explain how life could begin on other oxygen-free planets.

Building a small, airless Earth

Mancini and his primordial chamber

Image source: Rutgers University

Explains Mancini, "What we're trying to figure out is the alternative places electrons could go in the absence of oxygen." "It was most likely either through hydrogen from hydrothermal vents or light energy from the sun," he says. Otherwise, the researchers suspect that a conductive metal such as nickel or iron could have been the medium in which electrons could be moved from one place to another, and they're using nickel in their primordial-Earth chamber.

In search of the recipe for a catalyzation between proteins and nickel, Mancini, Saroj Poudel, and Douglas Pike are developing computer models of 4-billion-year-old, pre-life proteins by reverse-engineering their living descendants, keeping in mind the chemistry and physics of primordial earth. Each model is then assembled as what looks like a white powder but is actually millions of tiny protein molecules, and placed into the oxygen-free chamber along with nickel to see what happens.

The spark of life on Earth and elsewhere

Pike's computer model of an ancient protein

Image source: Douglas Pike/Rutgers University

The researchers are part of Rutgers' and NASA's ENIGMA astrobiology team. Defining proteins as "nanomachines that enable cells to generate energy and self-replicate," the mission of the project is to figure out how these "nanomachines allowed early life to convert chemical energy in the environment into useful biologic energy." ENIGMA stands for "Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors."

"Our goal," says Poudel, "is to take early evolving enzymes and see how they could evolve into something more complex that we know exists today. That will help us determine how we could have evolved here on Earth, and what is possible on other planets."

Mancini and his colleagues have not yet found the magical protein/nickel combination they seek, but, if they do, at least one vexing question about the origin of life on Earth may finally have an answer.

Take your career to the next level by raising your EQ

Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.

  • Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
  • One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
  • EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore cellular function in 32 dead pig brains

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
Keep reading Show less

Face mask study reveals worst material for blocking COVID-19

A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.

Fischer et al.
  • The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
  • The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
  • Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

You want to stop child abuse? Here's how you can actually help.

Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.

Photo: Atjanan Charoensiri / Shutterstock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
  • Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
  • Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
Keep reading Show less
Strange Maps

Here’s a map of Mars with as much water as Earth

A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'

Scroll down to load more…