Here we argue that life emerged on Earth from a redox and pH front at c. 4.2 Ga. This front occurred where hot (c. 150°C), extremely reduced, alkaline, bisulphide-bearing, submarine seepage waters interfaced with the acid, warm (c. 90°C), iron-bearing Hadean ocean. The low pH of the ocean was imparted by the ten bars of CO2 considered to dominate the Hadean atmosphere/hydrosphere. Disequilibrium between the two solutions was maintained by the spontaneous precipitation of a colloidal FeS membrane. Iron monosulphide bubbles comprising this membrane were inflated by the hydrothermal solution upon sulphide mounds at the seepage sites. Our hypothesis is that the FeS membrane, laced with nickel, acted as a semipermeable catalytic boundary between the two fluids, encouraging synthesis of organic anions by hydrogenation and carboxylation of hydrothermal organic primers. The ocean provided carbonate, phosphate, iron, nickel and protons; the hydrothermal solution was the source of ammonia, acetate, HS −, H2 and tungsten, as well as minor concentrations of organic sulphides and perhaps cyanide and acetaldehyde. The mean redox potential (ΔEh) across the membrane, with the energy to drive synthesis, would have approximated to 300 millivolts. The generation of organic anions would have led to an increase in osmotic pressure within the FeS bubbles. Thus osmotic pressure could take over from hydraulic pressure as the driving force for distension, budding and reproduction of the bubbles.
Condensation of the organic molecules to polymers, particularly organic sulphides, was driven by pyrophosphate hydrolysis. Regeneration of pyrophosphate from the monophosphate in the membrane was facilitated by protons contributed from the Hadean ocean. This was the first use by a metabolizing system of protonmotive force (driven by natural ApH) which also would have amounted to c. 300 millivolts. Protonmotive force is the universal energy transduction mechanism of life. Taken together with the redox potential across the membrane, the total electrochemical and chemical energy available for protometabolism amounted to a continuous supply at more than half a volt.
The role of the iron sulphide membrane in keeping the two solutions separated was appropriated by the newly synthesized organic sulphide polymers. This organic take-over of the membrane material led to the miniaturization of the metabolizing system. Information systems to govern replication could have developed penecontemporaneously in this same milieu. But iron, sulphur and phosphate, inorganic components of earliest life, continued to be involved in metabolism.
- Received September 7, 1994.
- Revision received September 30, 1996.
- © Geological Society of London 1997