24/7 Space News
Removing traces of life in lab helps NASA scientists study its origins
In JPL's Origins and Habitability Lab, researchers use a sealed chamber to conduct experiments free of oxygen in an effort to replicate the chemistry of early Earth. Shown from left are lab co-lead Laurie Barge and researchers Jessica Weber and Laura Rodriguez. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Removing traces of life in lab helps NASA scientists study its origins
by Staff Writers
Pasadena CA (JPL) Mar 01, 2023

A specialized laboratory setup at JPL removes the chemical influence of modern organisms so scientists can study the chemistry that may have led to life's emergence.

In the Origins and Habitability Lab at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, you can find a world in a test tube - specifically, a simplified simulation of early Earth. By re-creating the conditions that would have been found on our planet roughly 4 billion years ago, scientists can narrow down the possible chemical reactions that could have taken place then - including those that may have been critical to the emergence of life here, or that might signal the presence of life on another world.

Last year, researchers in JPL's Origins and Habitability Lab simulated the chemistry of early Earth and carried out a key chemical reaction involved in metabolism, the process living organisms use to convert fuel (such as sunlight or food) into energy. Did Earth's first life forms create energy with the same chemical reactions used by living organisms today?

The first step to answering that question is finding out whether those reactions were even possible on early Earth. In living organisms, such reactions take place only inside a membrane (such as the protective wall of a living cell), which is just one reason why it's an open question whether - and how - these reactions could have occurred before life formed.

The lab's work belongs to a discipline known as astrobiology: the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. The threads all tie together, so trying to understand how life formed on Earth would also help scientists search for life elsewhere. In fact, in another study, the lab team looked into how understanding the origin of life on Earth can also help scientists interpret the appearance of organic molecules (the chemical basis for living things on Earth) that might be found on another planet or moon.

But simulating the conditions found on Earth before life emerged is no easy task. Turning back the clock means taking into account how life has transformed our planet.

Something in the Air
There is essentially no place on Earth that's not occupied by some form of life. Microorganisms can be found at the bottom of the ocean, in scalding hot geysers, and in rooms dedicated to removing those organisms.

Life forms have also transformed our planet's chemistry. One of the biggest challenges with trying to create pre-life conditions in the lab is dealing with the presence of oxygen. Largely absent from Earth's atmosphere before life emerged, it is now ubiquitous because so many life forms produce it. As a result, all of the lab's origin-of-life experiments have to be conducted inside an airtight box, with an airlock for putting items in or taking them out. In addition to test tubes containing chemicals, any instruments used to analyze those chemicals must fit within the box, so there are some experiments the team can't do in this setting.

Moreover, only one person can work in the box at a time, donning thick rubber gloves built into the sides of the container to move things around or use the equipment. Filters (which require regular cleaning) capture stray oxygen atoms. Even water has to go through a lengthy process to remove oxygen gas.

"Science is all about repetition," said JPL research scientist Laurie Barge, who co-leads the Origins and Habitability Lab. "We want to do experiments again and again, and that's hard to do when you have to spend so much time making sure that not even a tiny bit of oxygen has crept into your test tube."

It took Barge and her team months to demonstrate that one chemical reaction involved in modern metabolism can take place under these early-Earth conditions. They plan to continue trying to simulate each step in the metabolism process and, at some point, they may find that a particular reaction can only occur inside a protective structure like a membrane. That might help narrow down when membranes became necessary in the emergence of life - a glimpse back in time.

There's another way that scientists could learn about the chemistry that took place, and potentially set the stage, for life on Earth: By studying a planet or moon with roughly the same raw ingredients that would have been found on early Earth. The location could be a lifeless moon in our own solar system or a planet around another star. Then Barge and her colleagues could test the ideas they're investigating against an environment that isn't constrained to the size of a glove box.

"It would be very interesting to validate and check some of our laboratory results against results from another world," said Jessica Weber, a JPL research scientist in the Origins and Habitability Lab who led the metabolism work. "Finding an environment like this would help us better re-create early Earth in our lab experiments, and that would get us closer to answering some of those big questions about life on our own planet and potentially on others."

Related Links
Origins and Habitability Lab
Lands Beyond Beyond - extra solar planets - news and science
Life Beyond Earth

Subscribe Free To Our Daily Newsletters

The following news reports may link to other Space Media Network websites.
Nanosatellite shows the way to RNA medicine of the future
Aarhus, Denmark (SPX) Feb 28, 2023
The RNA molecule is commonly recognized as messenger between DNA and protein, but it can also be folded into intricate molecular machines. An example of a naturally occurring RNA machine is the ribosome, that functions as a protein factory in all cells. Inspired by natural RNA machines, researchers at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Center (iNANO) have developed a method called "RNA origami", which makes it possible to design artificial RNA nanostructures that fold from a single stand of RNA. Th ... read more

DLR goes all in with new technology at the Startup Factory

Global patent filings edge higher in 2022: UN

Commercial Space: NASA Has an App for That

SpaceX Crew-6 ISS launch scrubbed; Empty Soyuz docks as replacement

SpaceX Dragon crew blasts off for ISS

Gilmour Space and Atomos Space sign MoU for launch and in-space transfers

ULA's Vulcan Centaur rocket is flying for the first time in May

SpaceX launches new Starlink 'V2 Mini' satellites into orbit

NASA's MAVEN spacecraft remains in safe mode after IMU issue

SuperCam's AI capabilities enhanced with AEGIS upgrade

Drilling the Marker Band Again: Sols 3750-3751

Better tools needed to determine ancient life on Mars

China's space station experiments pave way for new space technology

China solicits logos for manned space missions in 2023

Two crews set for Tiangong station in '23

Large number of launches planned

Public work begins on UK's largest commercial satellite control centre

Yusaku Maezawa, Entrepreneur and First Private Japanese Citizen to Visit the ISS, Invests U.S. $23 Million in Astroscale

China launches new communications satellite

AFRL establishes one-stop shop for partnerships

Is biodegradable better? Making sense of 'compostable' plastics

Meta slashes prices for Quest headsets to boost VR use

Machine magic or art menace? Japan's first AI manga

Augmented reality headset enables users to see hidden objects

Removing traces of life in lab helps NASA scientists study its origins

Humanity's quest to discover the origins of life in the universe

Nanosatellite shows the way to RNA medicine of the future

CARMENES project boosts the number of known planets in the solar neighbourhood

Newly discovered form of salty ice could exist on surface of extraterrestrial moons

New aurorae detected on Jupiter's four largest moons

JUICE's final take-off before lift-off

A new ring system discovered in our Solar System

Subscribe Free To Our Daily Newsletters


The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2023 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. All articles labeled "by Staff Writers" include reports supplied to Space Media Network by industry news wires, PR agencies, corporate press officers and the like. Such articles are individually curated and edited by Space Media Network staff on the basis of the report's information value to our industry and professional readership. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) Statement Our advertisers use various cookies and the like to deliver the best ad banner available at one time. All network advertising suppliers have GDPR policies (Legitimate Interest) that conform with EU regulations for data collection. By using our websites you consent to cookie based advertising. If you do not agree with this then you must stop using the websites from May 25, 2018. Privacy Statement. Additional information can be found here at About Us.