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Brines are ubiquitous; are they necessary for life to start?

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Introversion

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Ed Rivera-Valentín has spent quite a bit of time thinking about brines recently. The particular ratio of salt to water in the marinade. The special ingredients that can give things an extra kick.

I am referring, of course, to the salty solutions that are found across our solar system, on planets and moons and even asteroids. These would be no good on a Thanksgiving turkey, but they might be one of the most intriguing substances in the search for alien life. Last month, Rivera-Valentín, a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, in Texas, and other scientists gathered for BrinesCon, the first of three conferences over the next few years devoted to brines. Some water, a pinch of salt—this is the kind of mixture that, under the right conditions, could give life a chance to burble into existence, Rivera-Valentín told me. “When we find life,” he said, “it’s likely going to be associated with a brine.”

Over the years, NASA has pursued a “follow the water” strategy when looking for alien life, dispatching spacecraft to search for traces of H2O on celestial bodies. But “you’re never going to find pure liquid water,” Rivera-Valentín said. “What you’re going to find are brines.” So when scientists search for water beyond Earth, they’re really looking for salty water. That’s where interesting things can happen. Life on Earth is believed to have formed in a primordial soup seasoned with salt, and our oceans today are just giant brines—and they’re teeming with life.

Even though we haven’t yet found evidence of life outside Earth, the rest of the solar system, it turns out, is quite salty. Spacecraft have discovered frozen brineson the surface of Mars and evidence of liquid ones that might exist deep underground. Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus has a briny ocean beneath its frigid crust. NASA spacecraft orbiting Saturn once even sampled some Enceladian brine when the material escaped from a crack in the ice and sprayed into space. In addition to salts, the passing spacecraft detected some organic compounds—not proof of life, but certainly an indication that the subsurface ocean could potentially host some form of it. Europa, another icy moon around Jupiter, has a briny ocean that occasionally spews into space too. And spacecraft data suggest that even Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, might have small pockets of brine flowing deep within its interior.
 

Chris P

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The idea makes sense, and it's been a while (like 20 years) since I did any reading on the biochemical origins of life. But, conjecturing from the article, salts are needed to set up osmotic differences across membranes, without which water, food, nutrients, etc. could not diffuse to power the cell. In a conceptual way, some have described life as nothing more than some sort of chaotic attractor that reaches a tenuous stability at the junction between reactants (energy stored in whatever food the organism "eats") and products (the energy-poorer waste products). The organism dies when the attractor loses stability and dissipates. Sounds logical to me that such gradients couldn't exist outside of ionic solutions.

Cool article! I might have to put some more recent origin of life books on my Christmas list.
 

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I didn't read the article fully so I should just shut up but one of the JPL folks has (had?) a theory that the early cells were actually salt cages--no lipids, just an enclosed lattice of salt. He had this 'working' in theory at the mid-atlantic hydrothermal vents. Such areas are natural gradients because of the constant 'spew' of sulfur-rich fluids from the mantle.

Elsewhere I recall clays (montmorillonite or something) acting as helpers to set up a gradient. Clays can adsorb certain molecules and compounds. As the thinking goes, that adsorption is enough to cause a local gradient. Those proponents say that life only forms around clays--which rules out the vents, I believe.

I've heard that tides are a requisite for life to form. Same train of thought... tides are periodic and therefore the 'change' in conditions (in the tidal zone) can act as a gradient-style catalyst.

It's sort of cool that we have no solid idea where the first life arose on Earth. Some people believe some essential molecules came in during the early bombardment period--Amino acids and other simple organics can form under conditions found in space.
 

Chris P

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I've heard that tides are a requisite for life to form. Same train of thought... tides are periodic and therefore the 'change' in conditions (in the tidal zone) can act as a gradient-style catalyst.

The tidal pool story I recall (an not exclusive of what you said) is that the open ocean was too vast for the requisite chemicals to come in contact to react. Because tidal pools are exposed to UV light which generates highly reactive free radicals in organic compounds AND because evaporation would concentrate any molecules formed the tidal pools are more likely.

I recall a Star Trek TNG episode where Q brings Picard to very early Earth and shows him a puddle of slime. He says something to the effect that everything Picard loves about Earth was nothing but the slime it originated from.
 

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