Meteorites Splashing Into 'Warm Little Ponds' May Have Sparked Life on Earth

 K. D. Pearce
K. D. Pearce

A new study argues that meteorites that landed in volcanic pools of water 4 billion years ago were key to jump-starting life on Earth—a theory proposed by Charles Darwin more than 140 years ago. New analysis from McMaster University in Canada and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy suggests that meteorites that landed in shallow, stagnant pools of water (or "warm little ponds") on Earth brought the organic materials necessary to create life billions of years ago.

The research, published in the journal PNAS, is based on comprehensive modeling of astronomic, geological, chemical, and biological conditions on Earth as early as 4.5 billion years ago, looking at how RNA could have been formed in dry, intermediate, and wet conditions.

The "warm little pond" hypothesis—a phrase taken from a 1871 letter Darwin wrote to his friend Joseph Hooker—has been studied in labs since the 1950s, when University of Chicago researchers formed amino acids by introducing electric shocks into a flask of water and gases (meant to simulate early Earth's atmosphere).

The hypothesis isn't universally accepted; another candidate for life on Earth could be found in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. But some previous studies have supported the warm little pond hypothesis. Still, "no one's actually run the calculation before," lead author Ben Pearce said in a statement. "It's pretty exciting."

The idea is that meteorites that landed in these "warm little ponds" delivered protein building blocks called nucleobases that were necessary to first form RNA, one of the essential building blocks for all known life. Warm little ponds may have created just the right conditions for this to happen. They have wet and dry cycles, which have been shown to boost the process of nucleotides forming chains of RNA. The ponds would periodically dry out, leaving behind a high concentration of minerals, then fill back up again, leading to longer and longer polymers. These long strands of RNA would later begin to self-replicate—the first life on Earth.

The study concludes that based on these models, RNA polymers would have shown up early in Earth's history, some time before 4.17 billion years ago—only a few hundred million years after liquid water first formed on the planet's surface.

The results shouldn't be considered foolproof just yet. This study is based on mathematical models, which aren't quite enough to prove the hypothesis. "Now it's the experimentalists' turn to find out how life could indeed have emerged under these very specific early conditions," co-author Dmitry Semenov said in the statement.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

100 Fascinating Facts About Earth

The best Spaceball.
The best Spaceball.
NASA

Did you know that there’s a place in the South Pacific Ocean called Point Nemo that’s farther from land than any other point on Earth? So far, in fact, that the closest humans are usually astronauts aboard the International Space Station. (And by the way: The map you’re about to look for Point Nemo on might not be entirely accurate; a certain amount of distortion occurs when trying to depict a 3D planet on a 2D surface.)

In this all-new episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is journeying to the center of the Earth, and visiting its oceans, its atmosphere, and even space, in search of 100 facts about our endlessly fascinating planet.

The subjects that fall under the umbrella of “facts about Earth” are nearly as expansive as Earth itself. Geology, biology, astronomy, and cartography, are all fair game—and those are just a few of the many -ologies, -onomies, and -ographies you’ll learn about below. 

Press play to find out more Earth-shattering facts, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for more fact-filled videos here.