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No. 18: Nov-Dec 1981

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Life's origin within the earth?

Biologists usually hark back to warm, sunlit swamps and tidal pools when contemplating the origin of life. Lately, Hoyle has proposed a cosmochemical origin (see OR DID IT DRIFT IN FROM WITHOUT?). Few look within the earth. Yet, when Mt. St. Helens erupt-ed it essentially sterilized all lakes and ponds in the immediate area as far as known life forms were concerned, and then introduced previously unknown chemosynthetic bacteria. At least, this is one interpretation. Scientists at Oregon State University found the waters around the volcano to be teeming with these bacteria, up to a billion per drop. The bacteria resemble nothing in the local soil but do seem related to bacteria existing around Precambrian volcanos.

(Anonymous; "Secrets of Life in a Volcano?" Boston Globe, July 14, 1981.)

Comment. Were the new bacteria in the volcanic ejecta or had they just gone unnoticed in the soil? Could the hot rocks, geothermal brines, and restless magmas beneath our feet be the real cradle of terrestrial life, with photosynthesis-dependent surface species being relatively unimportant to the big picture?

From Science Frontiers #18, NOV-DEC 1981. 1981-2000 William R. Corliss