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Early 'soda lakes' may have provided missing ingredient key to the origin of life | Live Science
Friday, January 3, 2020
The first life-forms on Earth needed a pu pu platter of ingredients to exist, but one of those ingredients, the mineral phosphorus, has long puzzled scientists. No one knew how phosphorus, one of the six main chemical elements of life, became plentiful enough on early Earth for life to burst forth. Now, researchers may have the answer. Jonathan Toner, a research assistant professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, and David Catling, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, are quoted. Read More
Earthquake: Disaster foretold in the Pacific Northwest | KING 5
Thursday, January 2, 2020
This KING 5 special report covers the "the Big One," the massive earthquake and tsunami that is expected to occur along the Cascadia subduction zone. Bob Freitag, director of the UW Institute for Hazards Mitigation and senior lecturer in the UW Department of Urban Design and Planning, and Harold Tobin, director of the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and UW professor of Earth and space sciences, are interviewed. In addition, the following UW projects are mentioned: a partnership between the UW and Washington Sea Grant to study past earthquakes and tsunami along the Cascadia subduction zone; the M9 Project, which is a partnership between the UW and the U.S. Geological Survey; and a project by the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network to install seismometers in homes across the Puget Sound region. Read More
Here's what seismologists are saying about the flurry of Northwest earthquakes | Bellingham Herald
Thursday, January 2, 2020
Five moderate to strong earthquakes Monday at the northern end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone fault don't have seismologists too worried. Paul Bodin, UW research professor of Earth and space sciences and network manager of the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, is quoted. Read More
Scientists lay out scenario for life to emerge from carbonate-rich lakes | GeekWire
Thursday, January 2, 2020
Where did life on Earth get its start? In a newly published study, researchers from the University of Washington argue that carbonate-rich lakes would have been the best place for life's chemical building blocks to come together. Jonathan Toner, a research assistant professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted, and David Catling, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, is mentioned. Read More
Life could have emerged from lakes with high phosphorus
Monday, December 30, 2019
Life as we know it requires phosphorus. It’s one of the six main chemical elements of life, it forms the backbone of DNA and RNA molecules, acts as the main currency for energy in all cells and anchors the lipids that separate cells from their surrounding environment.
But how did a lifeless environment on the early Earth supply this key ingredient?
“For 50 years, what’s called ‘the phosphate problem,’ has plagued studies on the origin of life,” said first author Jonathan Toner, a University of Washington research assistant professor of Earth and space sciences.
The problem is that chemical reactions that make the building blocks of living things need a lot of phosphorus, but phosphorus is scarce. A new UW study, published Dec. 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds an answer to this problem in certain types of lakes.
The study focuses on carbonate-rich lakes, which form in dry environments within depressions that funnel water draining from the surrounding landscape. Because of high evaporation rates, the lake waters concentrate into salty and alkaline, or high-pH, solutions. Such lakes, also known as alkaline or soda lakes, are found on all seven continents.
While the exact concentration depends on where the samples were taken and during what season, the researchers found that carbonate-rich lakes have up to 50,000 times phosphorus levels found in seawater, rivers and other types of lakes. Such high concentrations point to the existence of some common, natural mechanism that accumulates phosphorus in these lakes.
Today these carbonate-rich lakes are biologically rich and support life ranging from microbes to Lake Magadi’s famous flocks of flamingoes. These living things affect the lake chemistry. Soresearchers did lab experiments with bottles of carbonate-rich water at different chemical compositions to understand how the lakes accumulate phosphorus, and how high phosphorus concentrations could get in a lifeless environment.
The reason these waters have high phosphorus is their carbonate content. In most lakes, calcium, which is much more abundant on Earth, binds to phosphorus to make solid calcium phosphate minerals, which life can’t access. But in carbonate-rich waters, the carbonate outcompetes phosphate to bind with calcium, leaving some of the phosphate unattached. Lab tests that combined ingredients at different concentrations show that calcium binds to carbonate and leaves the phosphate freely available in the water.
“It’s a straightforward idea, which is its appeal,” Toner said. “It solves the phosphate problem in an elegant and plausible way.”
Phosphate levels could climb even higher, to a million times levels in seawater, when lake waters evaporate during dry seasons, along shorelines, or in pools separated from the main body of the lake.
“The extremely high phosphate levels in these lakes and ponds would have driven reactions that put phosphorus into the molecular building blocks of RNA, proteins, and fats, all of which were needed to get life going,” said co-author David Catling, a UW professor of Earth & space sciences.
The carbon dioxide-rich air on the early Earth, some four billion years ago, would have been ideal for creating such lakes and allowing them to reach maximum levels of phosphorus. Carbonate-rich lakes tend to form in atmospheres with high carbon dioxide. Plus, carbon dioxide dissolves in water to create acid conditions that efficiently release phosphorus from rocks.
“The early Earth was a volcanically active place, so you would have had lots of fresh volcanic rock reacting with carbon dioxide and supplying carbonate and phosphorus to lakes,” Toner said. “The early Earth could have hosted many carbonate-rich lakes, which would have had high enough phosphorus concentrations to get life started.”
Another recent study by the two authors showed that these types of lakes can also provide abundant cyanide to support the formation of amino acids and nucleotides, the building blocks of proteins, DNA and RNA. Before then researchers had struggled to find a natural environment with enough cyanide to support an origin of life. Cyanide is poisonous to humans, but not to primitive microbes, and is critical for the kind of chemistry that readily makes the building blocks of life.
The research was funded by the Simons Foundation’s Collaboration on the Origins of Life.Read More
Using ice to track how nature has removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in the past | KNKX
Monday, December 23, 2019
Researchers are using ice to track the history of the atmosphere. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is interviewed. Read More
Watch: How 800,000-year-old ice sounds when dropped in Antarctic glacier | KOMO
Monday, December 23, 2019
While studying how the Earth's air cleans itself, one UW researcher made a viral discovery: the sound a piece of ice makes when dropped down a 90-meter-deep Antarctic glacier borehole. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
Analysis: Where does beach sand come from? | The Conversation
Thursday, December 19, 2019
"There's more to beach sand than meets the eye. It has stories to tell about the land, and an epic journey to the sea. That's because mountains end their lives as sand on beaches," writes David Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW. Read More
New landslide research from UW | KOMO 4
Thursday, December 12, 2019
New research from the UW is tracking the underlying causes to large landslides. Sean LaHusen, a graduate student in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is interviewed. Read More
Barrels of ancient Antarctic air aim to track history of rare gas
Thursday, December 12, 2019
Ancient air samples from one of Antarctica’s snowiest ice core sites may add a new molecule to the record of changes to Earth’s atmosphere over the past century and a half, since the Industrial Revolution began burning fossil fuels on a massive scale.
While carbon dioxide and methane are well known, researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Rochester are part of a team working to trace a much rarer gas, present at less than one in a trillion molecules. Though rare, the atmospheric detergent known as hydroxyl can scrub the atmosphere and determine the fate of more plentiful gases that affect Earth’s climate.
“Antarctic ice mission seeks mystery molecules that scrub sky” Australian Antarctic Division, October 2018
“Unearthing climate clues buried in ice” University of Rochester, February 2019
“The hunt for sky’s ‘detergent’ begins in Antarctica” Scientific American - November 2018
More about the project
An Antarctic fieldcampaign last winter led by the U.S. and Australia has successfully extracted some of the largest samples of air dating from the 1870s until today. These samples are a first step to learning the changes in hydroxyl concentration over the past 150 years. Early results from the fieldwork were shared this week at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting in San Francisco.
“It’s probably the most extreme atmospheric chemistry you can do from ice core samples, and the logistics were also extreme,” said Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher with dual appointments at the UW and at the University of Rochester.
But the months the team spent camped on the ice at the snowy Law Dome site paid off.
“This is, to my knowledge, the largest air sample from the 1870s that anyone’s ever gotten,” Neff said. His 10 weeks camped on the ice included minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures and several snowstorms, some of which he shared from Antarctica via Twitter.
1000m of ice core drilled across 6 boreholes
>5000kg of ice melted, freeing 550L of trapped air
Samples from 2010 to 1875, ready to tell us about the atmospheric scrubber "OH"
— Peter Neff (@peter_neff) February 5, 2019
Air from deeper ice cores drilled in Antarctica and Greenland has provided a record of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases, going back thousands of years. While carbon dioxide has a lifetime of decades to centuries, an even more potent gas, methane, has a lifetime of just nine or 10 years.
Pinpointing the exact lifetime of methane, and how it has changed over the years, depends on the concentration of hydroxyl. That number is important for the global climate models used to study past and future climate.
To trace the history of hydroxyl, a fleeting molecule with a lifetime of less than a millionth of a second, a field campaign in late 2018 and early 2019 drilled ice to study this very reactive gas by examining its slightly more plentiful companion, carbon with 14 neutrons bonded to an oxygen atom, or "carbon-14 monoxide," which is chemically destroyed by hydroxyl and so tracks hydroxyl’s concentrations.
Researchers get the carbon-14 monoxide gas from bubbles in the ice that form when snow is compressed.
“The special thing about glacier ice is that it always has these air bubbles,” Neff said. “Any glacier in the world is going to have that bubbly texture, because it started as a pile of six-fingered snowflakes, and between those fingers is air.”
One or several decades after hitting the ground, bubbles become completely sealed off from their surroundings due to compression under layers of snow. The heavy snow accumulation at Law Dome means plenty of air bubbles per year, and provides a thick enough shield to protect the carbon-14 monoxide from solar radiation.
The international team extracted about two dozen 3-foot-long sections of ice per day, then put the tubes of ice in a snow cave to protect them from cosmic rays that are stronger near the poles. Those rays can zap other molecules and distort the historic record.
“Once the samples are at the surface, they’re hot potatoes,” Neff said.
The day after extracting a core, the team would clean the ice and place it in a device of Neff and his University of Rochester postdoctoral supervisor Vasilii Petrenko's design: a 335-liter vacuum chamber in a warm bath to melt the ice and process the samples at their source, to avoid contamination and collect the biggest air samples.
“A single sample size was about 400 or 500 kilograms of ice, about the same weight as a grand piano, to get enough of that carbon-14 monoxide molecule,” Neff said. “At the field camp we turned 500 kilos of ice into one 50-liter canister of air.”
How we'll sample the ice drilled at Law Dome: the "hot tub time machine," if you will. A 300L vacuum chamber in a 50C hot water bath will travel with us, so we can cleanly extract ancient air that was once the space between fingers of snowflakes.
— Peter Neff (@peter_neff) October 23, 2018
The team retrieved 20 barrel-shaped canisters of air from various time periods.
Analysis over the coming months will aim to produce a concentration curve for carbon-14 monoxide and hydroxyl over the decades, similar to the now-famous curves for carbon dioxide and methane. The curves show how gas concentrations have changed in the atmosphere since the industrial era.
Throughout the effort, Neff has also explored more lighthearted combinations of ice and air. During a trip in early 2016 to prepare for this effort, Neff did an unofficial experiment that went viral on social media when he posted it in February 2018. The video captures the sound a piece of ice makes when dropped down the tunnel created by an ice core drill.
Happy hump day. pic.twitter.com/dQtLPWQi7T
— Peter Neff (@peter_neff) February 28, 2018
He shared more photos and videos during this past winter’s expedition to Antarctica, sometimes within hours of returning from a remote camp to an internet-connected research station.
“It’s great to be able to share something about Antarctica, from Antarctica,” Neff said. “It’s a way that we as geoscientists can share with people the work that they help to support.”
The project is led by Petrenko at the University of Rochester and David Etheridge at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia. Other collaborators on the results being presented at the meeting in San Francisco include Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, the Australian Antarctic Division and Oregon State University. The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Australian Antarctic Division.
For more information, contact Neff at email@example.com. He is not attending AGU but is available by email.Read More