Lost City pumps life-essential chemicals at rates unseen at typical black smokers

January 31, 2008

Hydrocarbons—molecules critical to life—are routinely
generated by the simple interaction of seawater with the rocks under the Lost
City hydrothermal vent field in the Atlantic Ocean, according to research led
by the University of Washington and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The production of such building blocks of life makes Lost City-like
vents strong contenders as places where life might have originated on Earth,
according to Giora Proskurowski and Deborah Kelley, two authors of a paper in
the Feb. 1 issue of the journal Science.
Researchers have ruled out carbon from the biosphere as a component of the hydrocarbons
in Lost City vent fluids.

Hydrocarbons–molecules with various combinations of
hydrogen and carbon atoms–are crucial to cellular life. For instance, cell
walls can be built from simple hydrocarbon chains, and amino acids are short
hydrocarbon chains hooked up with nitrogen, oxygen, or sulfur atoms.

“The generation of hydrocarbons was the very first step;
otherwise Earth would have remained lifeless,” says lead author Proskurowski,
who conducted the research while earning his doctorate from the University of
Washington (UW) and during post-doctoral work at WHOI.

Some researchers believe the first building blocks of life made
their way from outer space, while others hypothesize that the right ingredients
were generated by geological process on Earth—perhaps at hydrothermal vent
systems, where seawater seeps into Earth’s crust and picks up heat and minerals
until the water is so hot that it vents back into the ocean.

The Lost
City hydrothermal vents,
discovered in the mid-Atlantic by Kelley and colleagues during a National
Science Foundation-sponsored expedition in 2000, are formed in a very different
way than the black smoker vents that scientists first discovered in the 1970s.

Black smokers are so named because it can appear as if dark smoke
is billowing from them. In fact, the “smoke” is actually iron- and sulfur-rich
minerals precipitating from scalding vent waters—as hot as 760°F—meet the icy
cold depths. The spires and mounds that form are mottled mixes of sulfide

In contrast, structures at the Lost City
hydrothermal vent field are nearly pure carbonate—the same material as
limestone in caves—and they range in color from white to cream to gray. These
structures drape the cliffs at Lost
City and range from the
size of tiny toadstools to the 18-story column named Poseidon, which dwarfs
most known black smoker vents by at least 100 feet.

The field was named Lost
City in part because it sits on top of a submerged mountain named Atlantis and
was discovered by chance during an expedition on board the WHOI-operated research
vessel Atlantis.

The water venting at Lost City
is generally 200°F. The fluids do not get as hot as the black smokers because it
is not heated by magma; rather, the heat comes from serpentinization, a
chemical reaction between seawater and mantle rock.

That’s also the reason for all the hydrocarbons. Naturally occurring
carbon dioxide is locked in mantle rock. At Lost City,
the reaction between the rock and seawater produces 10 to 100 times more
hydrogen and methane (a hydrocarbon) than a typical black smoker system found
along volcanic mid-ocean ridges, Proskurowski and Kelley found.

The Lost
City system forms hydrocarbons
in higher concentrations and with more complexity than at typical black smoker
systems, says Kelley, a UW professor of oceanography and principal investigator
on a 2005 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expedition
that gathered samples analyzed for the Science

The hydrocarbons produced at Lost City
were not formed from atmospheric carbon dioxide because none of the carbon carries
the radioisotopic signature that would be present if they had been exposed to
sunlight, Proskurowski says.

Analysis of rock from Lost City
shows that the hydrocarbons are not coming from the living biosphere either. Rock
in contact with seawater has a very consistent ratio of carbon dioxide to
helium. But the rock at Lost
City had a strikingly
different ratio. It turns out that the depleted amount of carbon dioxide in the
rocks roughly equals the amount of hydrocarbons being produced in the fluids,
he says.

“The detection of these organic building blocks from a
non-biological source is possible evidence in our quest to understand the origin
of life on this planet and other solar bodies,” Proskurowski says.

Lost City is exceptional, Kelley says, because chemical
reactions in the seafloor produce acetate, formate, hydrogen, and alkaline
fluids. All these substances may have been key to the emergence of life,
according to work published recently by Michael Russell and A.J. Hall of Glasgow and William Martin of Germany.

In addition, acetate and formate found in Lost City
fluids may have been an important energy source for the ancestors of
methanogens, microorganisms that live off the methane at places like Lost City.
It is one more bit of evidence about where life may have originated, Kelley

Co-authors of the paper, “Abiogenic Hydrocarbon Production
at Lost City Hydrothermal Field,” include Marvin Lilley and Erick Olson from UW,
Jeffrey Seewald and Sean Sylva from WHOI, Gretchen Früh-Green from the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology, and John Lupton from NOAA’s Pacific Marine
Environmental Laboratory.

The Lost City hydrothermal vent field lies about 2,300 miles
east of Florida,
along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, at a depth of 2,600 feet. Microorganisms there
thrive in alkaline vent fluids, some nearly as caustic as liquid drain cleaner.
This contrasts to the previously studied black-smoker vents, where organisms have
adjusted to acidic water. Lost City microbes live off methane and hydrogen
instead of the carbon dioxide that is the key energy source for life at

Although nobody has found another field like Lost City,
Kelley says she’s sure others exist because there are so many other places where
mantle rock has been thrust up through the seafloor, exposing it to seawater
and serpentinization. It is likely that even more mantle rock was present in
the oceans of early Earth, Kelley says.