The origin of life is still an unsolved mystery in science. Hypothetically, prebiotic chemistry and the formation of protocells may have evolved in the hydrothermal environment of tectonic fault zones in the upper continental crust, an environment, where sensitive molecules are protected against degradation induced e.g. by UV radiation. The composition of fluid inclusions in minerals such as quartz, which have grown in this environment during the Archean period, is something like a primodial soup in a tin, which might provide important information about the first organic molecules formed by hydrothermal synthesis.
Together with various groups from the University of Duisburg-Essen and University of Heidelberg we found evidence for organic compounds, which were preserved in fluid inclusions of Archean quartz minerals from Western Australia.
We determined by GC-MS and LC-qTOF-MS a variety of organic compounds such as alkanes, halocarbons, alcohols, aldehydes and also DNA- and RNA-bases, which unambiguously show, that simple and even more complex prebiotic organic molecules have been formed by hydrothermal processes.
Stable-isotope analysis confirms, that the methane found in the inclusions has most likely been formed from abiotic sources by hydrothermal chemistry. Obviously, the liquid phase in the continental Archean crust provided an interesting choice of functional organic molecules. We conclude, that these organic substances could have made an important contribution to prebiotic chemistry, which might eventually have led to the formation of the first living cell.
In the future, we will analyze much more quartz samples from different ages to verify these results.