Issue Date: February 4, 2008
Abiogenic Hydrocarbons Born Under The Sea
Low-molecular-weight hydrocarbons found in fluid that gushes from undersea hydrothermal vents are thought to have abiogenic origins, but that idea has been hard to confirm. Now, a research team led by Giora Proskurowski of the University of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) presents several lines of evidence to support the theory (Science 2008, 319, 604). The researchers believe that the hydrocarbons are produced via Fischer-Tropsch reactions from inorganic carbon under high-temperature and high-pH conditions, and not from the breakdown of organic matter like hydrocarbons in fossil fuels. The team studied volatile hydrocarbons plucked from vents in the Lost City Hydrothermal Field in the Atlantic Ocean. The evidence includes the finding that the mix contains mostly short-chain alkanes and ethene and that the hydrocarbons contain less 13C with increasing chain length. "Abiogenic hydrocarbons may represent an important source of carbon and energy for microbes that inhabit vent environments as well as a source of organic precursors from which life evolved on early Earth," says Jeffrey S. Seewald, a WHOI scientist and study coauthor.
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