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How do you produce life on an early Earth bathed in ultraviolet radiation? The presumption when I was growing up was that the combination of chemicals in ancient ponds, fed energy by lightning or ultraviolet light itself, would produce everything needed to start the process. Thus Stanley Miller and Harold Urey’s experiments, beginning in 1953 at the University of Chicago, which simulated early Earth conditions to produce amino acids out of a sealed ‘atmosphere’ of water, ammonia, methane and hydrogen, with electrodes firing sparks to simulate lightning.

But there are other ways of explaining life’s origins, as a new study from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Icy Worlds Team at the NASA Astrobiology Institute reminds us. Hydrothermal vents on the sea floor have been under consideration since the 1980s, with some researchers pointing to the ‘black smokers’ that produce hot, acidic fluids. The new NASA work looks at much cooler vents bubbling with alkaline solutions like those in the ‘Lost City,’ a field of hydrothermal activity in the mid-Atlantic on the seafloor mountain Atlantis Massif.

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