black smoker
Deep sea hydrothermal vent spewing a chemical-rich broth. These are black smokers from the Galapagos Rift. Photographer: Al Giddings/AL GIDDINGS IMAGES, INC.

HEADLINE SCIENCE : Cooking up Life

Hydrothermal vents are forbidding places. Supercooked chemicals shoot forth from these seafloor cracks, and the ocean above creates crushing pressure. But some scientists believe these underwater infernos provided just the right conditions for making molecules with a multi-carbon backbone and jump-starting life on Earth. This origin of life view has been boosted by recent experiments by Dr. George D. Cody and his team at the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C.

Starting with a handful of simple organic and metallic molecules like those in the rich chemical broth of hydrothermal vents, scientists showed that applying intense heat and pressure transformed these materials into pyruvate. Pyruvate plays a key role in the metabolism of living things and is a likely building block for such complex molecules as sugars and fats.

Investigating seafloor vent chemistry involves risks. It’s like building an active volcano in the laboratory. The researchers used a fortified reaction chamber, clad in battleship-salvaged steel plates, to generate the required heat and pressure.

It was an amateur scientist–a German patent attorney named Dr. Günther Wächtershäuser--whose theory stimulated the experiments leading to the first creation of pyruvate in a laboratory.

Other amateur scientists whose passionate interests and contributions have changed history are:
George Washington Carver (1860-1943) - Agricultural Productivity
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) - Evolution
Thomas Edison (1847-1931) - Electricity
Miriam Rothschild (1908- ) - Genetics