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Comets and the Origin of Life

Comets and the Origin of Life

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On the present-day Earth aqueous suspensions of clay particles in

conjunction with organics persist mostly in hydrothermal vents, the total

volume of which could hardly be in excess of 103

km3

. Clay present

elsewhere in the crust, formed through weathering of rocks and

accumulating in shallow pools, would have an erratic short-term

persistence, drying up seasonally, or with colloidal particles sedimenting

under gravity on shorter timescales. Soon after the end of the Late

Heavy Bombardment, the deposition rate of clay in the Earth’s crust

would have been minimal, as is indicated by the thin layers of clay found

at the top of the oldest Pre-Cambrian sediments (Ziegler and Longstaffer,

2000). With organic molecules supplied erratically by comet impacts,

their concentrations in the oceans will necessarily be exceedingly low —

too dilute presumably for any prebiotic chemistry to proceed (Hazen,

190

Astrobiology, Comets and the Origin of Life

2005). Transiently high concentrations will of course be achieved by

evaporation near the margins of lakes and seas. But these high

concentrations would also have a short-term seasonal persistence. All

these factors would constitute a severe limitation for an Earth-based

theory of the origin of life.

In Chapter 7 we saw that there is evidence for clay particles in

comets, and these were obviously not formed by rock erosion processes.

We pointed out that interstellar silicate grains included within the melted

cores of comets could undergo aqueous alteration to become clay-like

structures.

At the presumed time of life’s origin on Earth we consider an

effective depth of 2 m of clay covering 1% of the Earth to be an

optimistic upper limit for the total clay volume (~104

km3

) that is

transiently available for catalytic chemistry. Taking ~1012

comets with

mean radius 10 km in an initial Oort cloud, and if a comet contains 30%

by volume of clay, the total volume of clay particles in solar system

comets is 1015

km3

. This gives a factor 1010

in favour of comets, on the

basis of relative clay volume alone. Whereas the average persistence of

shallow clay pools and hydrothermal vent concentrations of clay can

range from 1 yr to ~100 yr, a cometary interior provides a stable,

aqueous, organic-rich environment for ~106

yr. Thus there is another

factor of at least 106

/100 = 104

in favour of solar system comets, raising

their relative chances to 1013

. But given that panspermia takes place on

an interstellar scale we have to multiply this number by the number of

solar system clones in the Galaxy. If 10% of G-dwarf stars are endowed

with planetary systems and Oort clouds of comets, the final number for

the Galaxy is 1024

. Thus the mass and stability of suitable cometary

environments overwhelms any which may have existed on the early

Earth: if life was first assembled in a clay system, the odds against the

clay being terrestrial are ~1024

to 1 against. Similar considerations apply

to other proposed prebiotic pathways, such as those of the PAH (Hazen,

2005), lipid (Szostak et al., 2001) or peptide (Carny and Gazit, 2005)

worlds.

Liquid water, organic molecules and surfaces on which catalytic

reactions can take place are likely prerequisites for the emergence of life.

All these requirements are met within comets and there is no compelling

Origin of Life

191

reason why cometary prebiotic molecules need to be brought to Earth

before they can be assembled. Cometary interiors provide a much better

option if the totality of comets in the Galaxy is taken into account

(Napier et al., 2007). Mechanisms discussed in the literature (such as the

clay world of Cairns-Smith) work far better in liquid cometary interiors

than they do in the harsh environment of the early Earth. And in terms of

their total mass and surface area for catalytic reactions, stability of

environment and high nutrient concentration, comets are overwhelmingly

favoured.

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193

Chapter 9

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