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Paleontologist Presents Origin of Life Theory

Sankar Chatterjee presents what he calls the "Holy Grail of science" to Geological Society of America.

Written by John Davis


Meteorite bombardment left large craters that contained water and chemical building blocks for life, which ultimately led to the first organisms.

It has baffled humans for millennia: how did life begin on planet Earth? Now, new research from a Texas Tech University paleontologist suggests it may have rained from the skies and started in the bowels of hell.

Sankar Chatterjee, Horn Professor of Geosciences and curator of paleontology at the Museum of Texas Tech University believes he has found the answer by connecting theories on chemical evolution with evidence related to our planet’s early geology.

“This is bigger than finding any dinosaur,” Chatterjee said. “This is what we’ve all searched for – the Holy Grail of science.”

Thanks to regular and heavy comet and meteorite bombardment of Earth’s surface during its formative years 4 billion years ago, the large craters left behind not only contained water and the basic chemical building blocks for life, but also became the perfect crucible to concentrate and cook these chemicals to create the first simple organisms.

He will present his findings Oct. 30 during the 125th Anniversary Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver.

As well as discovering how ancient animals flew, Chatterjee discovered the Shiva Meteorite Crater, which was created by a 25-mile-wide meteorite that struck off the coast of India. This research concluded this giant meteorite wreaked havoc simultaneously with the Chicxulub meteorite strike near Mexico, finishing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Ironically, Chatterjee’s latest research suggests meteorites can be givers of life as well as takers. He said that meteor and comet strikes likely brought the ingredients and created the right conditions for life on our planet. By studying three sites containing the world’s oldest fossils, he believes he knows how the first single-celled organisms formed in hydrothermal crater basins.

“When the Earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, it was a sterile planet inhospitable to living organisms,” Chatterjee said. “It was a seething cauldron of erupting volcanoes, raining meteors and hot, noxious gasses. One billion years later, it was a placid, watery planet teeming with microbial life – the ancestors to all living things.”

Recipe for Living

Hydrothermal Vent

As the basins filled, volcanically driven geothermal vents heated the water and created convection. The result was constant water movement, creating a thick primordial soup.

“For may years, the debate on the origins of life centered on the chemical evolution of living cells from organic molecules by natural processes. Chatterjee said life began in four steps of increasing complexity – cosmic, geological, chemical and biological.

In the cosmic stage, a still-forming Earth and our solar system took a daily pounding from rocky asteroids and icy comets between 4.1 to 3.8 billion years ago. Plate tectonics, wind and water have hidden evidence of this early onslaught on our planet, but ancient craters on the surfaces of Mars, Venus, Mercury and our moon show just how heavy the meteorite showers once were.

Larger meteorites that created impact basins of about 350 miles in diameter inadvertently became the perfect crucibles, he said. These meteorites also punched through the Earth’s crust, creating volcanically driven geothermal vents. Also, they brought the basic building blocks of life that could be concentrated and polymerized in the crater basins.

After studying the environments of the oldest fossil-containing rocks on Earth in Greenland, Australia and South Africa, Chatterjee said these could be remnants of ancient craters and may be the very spots where life began in deep, dark and hot environments.

Because of Earth’s perfect proximity to the sun, the comets that crashed here melted into water and filled these basins with water and more ingredients. This gave rise to the geological stage. As these basins filled, geothermal venting heated the water and created convection, causing the water to move constantly and create a thick primordial soup.

“The geological stage provides special dark, hot, and isolated environments of the crater basins with the hydrothermal vent systems that served as incubators for life,” he said. “Segregation and concentration of organic molecules by convective currents took place here, something like the kinds we find on the ocean floor, but still very different. It was a bizarre and isolated world that would seem like a vision of hell with the foul smells of hydrogen sulfide, methane, nitric oxide and steam that provided life-sustaining energy.”

Then began the chemical stage, Chatterjee said. The heat churning the water inside the craters mixed chemicals together and caused simple compounds to grow into larger, more complex ones.

Crater Crucible

Eventually, the first life forms left the confines of the crater and ventured into the newly formed oceans.

Protecting Important Information

Most likely, pores and crevices on the crater basins acted as scaffolds for concentrations of simple RNA and protein molecules, he said. Unlike a popular theory that believes RNA came first and proteins followed, Chatterjee believes RNA and proteins emerged simultaneously and were encapsulated and protected from the environment.

“The dual origin of the ‘RNA/protein’ world is more plausible in the vent environments than the popular ‘RNA world,’” he said. “RNA molecules are very unstable. In vent environments, they would decompose quickly. Some catalysts, such as simple proteins, were necessary for primitive RNA to replicate and metabolize. On the other hand, amino acids, from which proteins are made, are easier to make than RNA components.”

The question remains how loose RNA and protein material floating in this soup protected itself in a membrane. Chatterjee believes University of California professor David Deamer’s hypothesis that membranous material existed in the primordial soup. Deamer isolated fatty acid vesicles from the Murchison meteorite that fell in 1969 in Australia. The cosmic fatty bubbles extracted from the meteorite mimic cell membranes.

“Meteorites brought this fatty lipid material to early Earth,” Chatterjee said. “This fatty lipid material floated on top of the water surface of crater basins but moved to the bottom by convection currents. At some point in this process during the course of millions of years, this fatty membrane could have encapsulated simple RNA and proteins together like a soap bubble. The RNA and protein molecules begin interacting and communicating. Eventually RNA gave way to DNA – a much more stable compound – and with the development of the genetic code, the first cells divided.”

The final stage – the biological stage – represents the origin of replicating cells as they began to store, process and transmit genetic information to their daughter cells, Chatterjee said. Infinite combinations took place, and countless numbers must have failed to function before the secret of replication was broken and the proper selection occurred.

“These self-sustaining first cells were capable of Darwinian evolution,” he said. “The emergence of the first cells on the early Earth was the culmination of a long history of prior chemical, geological and cosmic processes.”

Chatterjee also believes that modern RNA-viruses and protein-rich prions that cause deadly diseases probably represent the evolutionary legacy of primitive RNA and protein molecules. They may be the oldest cellular particles that predated the first cellular life. Once cellular life evolved, RNA-viruses and prions became redundant, but survived as parasites on the living cells.

The problem with theories on the origins of life is that they don’t propose any experiments that lead to the emergence of cells, Chatterjee said. However, he suggested an experiment to recreate the ancient prebiotic world and support or refute his theory.

“If future experiments with membrane-bound RNA viruses and prions result in the creation of a synthetic protocell, it may reflect the plausible pathways for the emergence of life on early Earth,” he said.

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11 Responses to “Paleontologist Presents Origin of Life Theory”

  1. MikeG Says:

    Meteorites such as Murchison, Tagish Lake, and Allende may have made life possible here by injecting much-needed ingredients into the primordial Earth. I have always believed this and it’s a popular theory amongst meteorite collectors such as myself. :)

  2. Travis Says:

    Where did the chemical building blocks for life come from?

  3. Dr. Solomon Kimuyu Says:

    We live a time of scientific discovery and the stage of knowing, I was born of rural africa peasants where doctors were considered a luxury. Akamba people are surrounded with endless hills with caves dating back to the beginning of their ancestral history; they know how their world began.
    Dr.Leakey of Kenya has spent years looking for the answers of the origin of man.
    Moving far west Lubbock, talk to the America Indians, to the eat talk to Pipestone American Indians whose natives still chip out – pipe stone they too have story of the origin of man in their world.
    July 2011 I spend a summer in Corinth Greece, I asked the same question, they too had their history of the beginning of the world. I moved further south New Zealand, they told me how their world began.
    The controversy over the beginning of man and his world origin will continue for years to come.
    Several years ago I walked at the campus of T.Tech I never imagined a person would rise up to explain the origin of the world. I love west Texas.
    I will continue to follow scientific studies on the subject matter.
    Solomon Kimuyu PhD

  4. Stephen Says:

    “The RNA and protein molecules begin interacting and communicating. Eventually RNA gave way to DNA…” The leap that these two sentences represent is quite fantastic. Also, the verbiage of “gave way” suggests a predisposition for organization in what is believed to be a world of chaos. I would have appreciated more explanation concerning these assertions.

  5. Jacob Says:

    It seems preposterous to me to state absolutely that things, when given enough time, will go into a state of what we perceive to be order. While the second law of thermodynamics may not apply to the case of Earth, as it is not a closed system, I believe that it’s derived concept can easily and reasonably be used as a argument against order (life) forming on Earth.

    While concepts such as the one above may seem to be reasonable, plausible, and even probable, they choose to ignore (literally, not consider) a number of actual facts so proceed. It’s like an if then statement, but the if path that so many scientists choose as the most probable one is simply illogical.

    To briefly expound upon what I said above is that when you have a closed system, things will always go into chaos, or the entropy will increase (statement of the second law of thermodynamics). When we examine the proposed picture of earth, 4.5 billion years ago, and the subsequent billion years or so, it is stated that astral bodies commonly struck the earth. Frankly, that sounds like more chaos, in a world where, if left undisturbed, it would already progress to a more chaotic, or disordered state.

    Now, this line of thought applies to not only the stated origin of life “theory”, but also to the hypothetical progression of life.

  6. Dinobondhu Biswas Says:

    I feel so far as many experiments , findings & assumptions are placed before us still not scientifically proven.. Those research & findings I feel look like based on beliefs & may be…. People who want to know more about this need more & proven scientific explanation concerning these assertions , not based on just somewhere & somehow the chemical reaction happens & the human life begins. I feel for the deeper knowledge acquiring it is okay . This will keep us going with this topic what is next is theory! This may not be the concrete proof about first human evolution on earth it may be changed by somebody next day in future.

  7. M S Sisodia Says:

    In the beginning the elements also had to prove their superiority over each other, for example, it looks like carbon was superior over silicon though with many similar properties hence was more appropriate for the construction of a cell. Similarly phosphorus is the most befitting in the DNA/RNA construction than arsenic. The life may have originated with different elements (if we can really call it life) depending upon the availability and abundance of elements on the Earth. For instance, the abundance of phosphorus on the Earth as per geological records is seen much after the life had already originated. Looking to the evolution of life probably we should not ignore the evolutionary trends shown by superiority in element structure and properties!!

  8. ABIOGENESIS UPDATES | Tsjok's blog Says:

    […] “Paleontologist Presents Origin of Life Theory” - De foto bovenaan dit artikel is afkomstig van Texas Tech […]

  9. Brian P Says:

    Sankar Chatterjee is a great man of faith! I can only aspire to have such faith. I say we need to go back to Genesis. The great scientists of the past had no problem exploring and explaining the world based on the belief that God can be known thru His creation.
    I suggest that the second law of thermodynamics is evidence of sin in our world.
    The mathematical probabilities of something being created out of nothing are too great for me. I am a simple man of faith.

  10. Mike Dallas Says:

    Produce for me examples where Randomness w/o a brain produces the exact Precision we find in the Laws of Nature & Science. Not counting what we see of Design, Engineering, Programming etc from the simpliest cells. So RNA, DNA came about so Designed, Engineered, Programmed etc Simultaneously! Really. Not only is that illogical it doesn’t make Sense it only makes Non Sense. Ironically if you actually read Darwin’s book Chapter 6 he states basically if ever proven the simple cell is not simple but complex his Theory is disproven! Why don’t Evolutionist ever disclose that part of his book. Much less how they still use PROVEN FRAUDS IN TEXTS TODAY to teach Evol as Fact. It takes more Faith to be an Evolutionist than believe the obvious, Only God has the ability to be the Creator! Yes, the Christian God because Jesus defied all odds by fulfilling all the Biblical prophecies! If don’t believe it do Google search & you will find it.

  11. Rene De Hon Says:

    I wish people that do not understant the 2nd Law of Thermodymanic would stop citing it in their arguuments. Order comes out of chaos all the time. Randomness with out a brain produces very ordered crystalline structures.

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Featured Expert

Sankar Chatterjee is the curator of paleontology at the Museum of Texas Tech and a Horn professor in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences.

View his profile in our online Experts Guide.


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