For life to have emerged from CO₂, rocks, and water on the early Earth, a sustained source of chemically transducible energy was essential. The serpentinization process is emerging as an increasingly likely source of that energy. Serpentinization of ultramafic crust would have continuously supplied hydrogen, methane, minor formate, and ammonia, as well as calcium and traces of acetate, molybdenum and tungsten, to off-ridge alkaline hydrothermal springs that interfaced with the metal-rich carbonic Hadean Ocean. Silica and bisulfide were also delivered to these springs where cherts and sulfides were intersected by the alkaline solutions. The proton and redox gradients so generated represent a rich source of naturally produced chemiosmotic energy, stemming from geochemistry that merely had to be tapped, rather than induced, by the earliest biochemical systems. Hydrothermal mounds accumulating at similar sites in today's oceans offer conceptual and experimental models for the chemistry germane to the emergence of life, although the ubiquity of microbial communities at such sites in addition to our oxygenated atmosphere preclude an exact analogy.
Published 2010. This article is a US Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.