Astrobiologists have uncovered two reaction pathways at hydrothermal vents that could produce organic compounds relevant to the origin of life on Earth and other worlds. For the origin of life as we know it, organic compounds need to be formed from inorganic precursors. Theories suggest that natural reactions could form these compounds at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where warm fluids rich in hydrogen are released.

In a study supported by the Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology element of the NASA Astrobiology Program, researchers have revealed two reaction pathways that transform carbon-containing molecules into forms that life can use. Contrary to previous theories, the two pathways do not need fluids circulating in the environment. Instead, molecules are formed in small spaces in rocks where the fluids are trapped. The paper, “Pathways for abiotic organic synthesis at submarine hydrothermal fields,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).