Life is evolutionarily the most complex of the emergent symmetry-breaking, macroscopically organized dynamic structures in the Universe. Members of this cascading series of disequilibria-converting systems, or engines in Cottrell's terminology, become ever more complicated—more chemical and less physical—as each engine extracts, exploits and generates ever lower grades of energy and resources in the service of entropy generation. Each one of these engines emerges spontaneously from order created by a particular mother engine or engines, as the disequilibrated potential daughter is driven beyond a critical point. Exothermic serpentinization of ocean crust is life's mother engine. It drives alkaline hydrothermal convection and thereby the spontaneous production of precipitated submarine hydrothermal mounds. Here, the two chemical disequilibria directly causative in the emergence of life spontaneously arose across the mineral precipitate membranes separating the acidulous, nitrate-bearing CO2-rich, Hadean sea from the alkaline and CH4/H2-rich serpentinization-generated effluents. Essential redox gradients—involving hydrothermal CH4 and H2 as electron donors, CO2 and nitrate, nitrite, and ferric iron from the ambient ocean as acceptors—were imposed which functioned as the original ‘carbon-fixing engine’. At the same time, a post-critical-point (milli)voltage pH potential (proton concentration gradient) drove the condensation of orthophosphate to produce a high energy currency: ‘the pyrophosphatase engine’.
One contribution of 14 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Energy transduction and genome function: an evolutionary synthesis’.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.