Ever wondered how lightning helps us? A new research from the University of Leeds has found that lightning was of equal importance as meteorites in creating the perfect conditions for life to emerge on Earth.
Till now we’ve associated minerals delivered to Earth in meteorites to be the reasons for the development of life on our planet.
The team says that life could develop on Earth-like planets through the same mechanism if atmospheric conditions are right.
Led by Benjamin Hess during his undergraduate studies at the University of Leeds in the School of Earth and Environment, the team were studying an exceptionally large sample of fulgurite. Fulgurite is a rock created when lightning strikes the ground. They found this when lightning struck a property in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, the USA in 2016.
It fascinated the team to discover a highly unusual phosphorus mineral called schreibersite. Phosphorus plays an important role in all life processes. The phosphorus present on earth cannot dissolve in water, whereas the schreibersite can.
Hess, who is now a PhD student at Yale University, Connecticut, USA, said “Many have suggested that life on Earth originated in shallow surface waters, following Darwin’s famous “warm little pond” concept.
Hess added that the study finds a substantial amount of schreibersite in the fulgurite. Lightning strikes Earth frequently, thus meaning that the phosphorus needed for the origin of life is not solely based on the meteorite hits.
This means that there is a fair possibility of formation of life on other Earth-like planets since meteorite impacts have become rare. The team estimated that phosphorus minerals made by lightning strikes surpassed those from meteorites when the earth was around 3.5 billion years old, which is about the age of the earliest known microfossils, making lightning strikes significant in the emergence of life on the planet.
Dr Jason Harvey, Associate Professor of Geochemistry in Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, and Sandra Piazolo, Professor of Structural Geology and Tectonics in the School of Earth and Environment, mentored Mr Hess in the research project.
This could mean that life could emerge on Earth-like planets at any point in time.
Piazolo added that the research opens the door for other investigations of searching for life in other Earth-like environments. All these studies will help to increase our understanding of the importance of fulgurite in changing the chemical environment of Earth through time.
Benjamin L. Hess, Sandra Piazolo, Jason Harvey. Lightning strikes as a major facilitator of prebiotic phosphorus reduction on early Earth. Nature Communications, 2021; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-21849-2