A team of JPL and Oak Crest researchers, supported through the NASA Astrobiology Institute Icy Worlds, successfully have reproduced in the lab a key reaction in the origin of life. The results of the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer clues to how life may have started on Earth and where else in the cosmos we might find it. The researchers recreated in the laboratory a complex mineral system that emulates hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor (see photo) and found that this mixture generated significant quantities of the amino acid alanine from simple starting materials. Amino acids assemble into protein, like Lego blocks, and are found in all living organisms. “This is an important first step in showing that iron oxyhydroxide mineral systems containing geochemical gradients can produce amino acids”, said Dr. Marc Baum, one of the study investigators and Oak Crest Senior Faculty. “Much of the elegance of these important results lie with the simplicity of the experimental setup. I did not expect this to work when we started”, he continued.

A more detailed press release can be found on the JPL website.