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Japan researchers confirm deep-sea electric current, possible origin of life on Earth

A hydrothermal vent off Okinawa Prefecture is seen. The height of the chimney is approximately 6 meters. (Photo provided by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology)

A team of scientists from Japanese research institutes has confirmed low electric current around deep-sea hydrothermal vents, suggesting a possibility that such a current played a key role in the formation of life on Earth from organic matter in the ocean.

    The team, comprised of scientists at the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) and the Riken research institute, surveyed in 2015 areas approximately 150 kilometers northwest of Okinawa Prefecture's main island at a depth of some 1,000 meters with an unmanned probe. They studied an area of up to 100 meters from hydrothermal vents and detected a fraction of electric current typically found in a regular battery.

    While hot water under the seabed contains various substances prone to discharge electrons such as hydrogen sulfide, sea water above the seabed has matters that pick up electrons. The team says the condition particular to the ocean floor around a hydrothermal vent, where electricity-conducting sulfide mineral is deposited, also helps generate electric current.

    There is a theory that life on Earth originated from areas around high-temperature, high-pressured hydrothermal vents some 4 billion years ago, but it remains unknown how complex molecules such as DNA and tissues essential for a living thing were created from organic matter, the basis for life.

    JAMSTEC's Masahiro Yamamoto, a member of the research team, calls hydrothermal vents "natural power plants." He says, "Electric energy (in areas around hydrothermal vents) might have been the key for the origin of life on Earth."

    The research result will be published in the Angewandte Chemie International Edition of the German Chemical Society on May 10.

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