Researchers from Yale University suggest that lightning strikes during the first billion years, after the formation of the planet Earth, may have released the phosphorus needed to create biomolecules necessary for life.
According to new research, millions of lightning and thunder rich in phosphorus were the trigger for the emergence of life on Earth.
“The thunder that struck our planet four billion years ago, when the Earth was younger, brought the phosphorus needed by the molecules that make up the basic cell structures and cell membranes, and even the phosphate backbone of DNA and RNA,” said Benjamin Hess, the author of studies and a graduate student at Yale University.
“Most phosphorus on Earth is trapped in minerals that are basically insoluble and non-reactive, meaning they can’t make the biomolecules needed for life. Lightning strikes provide new mechanisms for creating phosphorus in a form that can create important phenomena for life,” said Hess.
It has long been thought that meteorites brought the necessary elements for life to appear on Earth. Meteorites are known to contain schreiberzite, a mineral of phosphorus, which can dissolve in water. A small number of meteorites fell to earth, and life originated 3.5 to 4.5 billion years ago.
“Unlike meteorite impacts, which decrease exponentially over time, lightning strikes can occur at a steady rate throughout the planet’s history. This means that lightning strikes can also be a very important mechanism for providing the phosphorus needed for life to occur,” Hess added.
Significance of the mineral fulgurite
Researchers examined an unusually large, intact sample of fulgurite formed when lightning struck the yard of a house in Glen Elin, Illinois, USA. This sample proved that fulgurites contain significant amounts of schreibersite.
Schreiberzite can also be found in a spring called fulgurite, which is the glass that forms when lightning strikes the ground. The mineral fulgurite contains phosphorus which is released from surface rocks and is soluble.
“Our research shows that the production of bioavailable phosphorus by lightning may have been underestimated and that this mechanism provides a continuous supply of phosphorus-capable material in a life-sustaining form,” said study co-author Jason Harvey, an associate professor of geochemistry at the University of Leeds.
Among the ingredients that are considered necessary for life are water, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus, along with an energy source.
Scientists believe that the earliest organisms are similar to bacteria, formed in the primordial waters of the Earth, but there is a debate about when this happened and whether it took place in warm and shallow waters or in deeper waters in hydrothermal vents.