Robert Roy Britt
LiveScience Managing Editor
Sat Jul 26, 12:05 PM ET
One of the greatest mysteries in science is how life began. Now one group of researchers says diamonds may have been life's best friend.
Scientists have long theorized that life on Earth got going in a primordial soup of precursor chemicals. But nobody knows how these simple amino acids, known to be the building blocks of life, were assembled into complex polymers needed as a platform for genesis.
Diamonds are crystallized forms of carbon that predate the oldest known life on the planet. In lab experiments aimed to confirm work done more than three decades ago, researchers found that when treated with hydrogen, natural diamonds formed crystalline layers of water on the surface. Water is essential for life as we know it. Also, the tests found electrical conductivity that could have been key to forcing chemical reactions needed to generate the first birth.
When primitive molecules landed on the surface of these hydrogenated diamonds in the atmosphere of early Earth, a few billion years ago, the resulting reaction may have been sufficient enough to generate more complex organic molecules that eventually gave rise to life, the researchers say.
The research, by German scientists Andrei Sommer, Dan Zhu, and Hans-Joerg Fecht at the University of Ulm, is detailed in the Aug. 6 issue of the American Chemical Society's journal Crystal Growth & Design. Funding was provided by the Landesstiftung Baden-Wurttemberg Bionics Network.
Another theory, called panspermia, holds that life on Earth arrived from space, as organisms rained down inside tiny meteors or giant comets.
The new research does not conclusively determine how life began, but it lends support to one possible way.
"Hydrogenated diamond advances to the best of all possible origin-of-life platforms," the researchers contend.