Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Creating life using piezoelectricity

A longstanding theory on how the first molecules of life were formed is that founded on experiments that show that electrical discharges in the presence of simple organic molecules such as methane, together with ammonia and water, produce more complex molecules found in life. See the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis discussed briefly here and the Miller-Urey experiment discussion here.

The usual form of electrical discharge considered is lightning, but it occurred to me recently that there is another natural source of electricity - the piezoelectric effect. In the piezoelectric effect, pressure on crystalline matter, such as that in rocks, produces an electric current.

The piezoelectric effect seems particularly interesting because of recent suggestions that life (bacteria for example) is common deep in the crust of the earth and that it might even have evolved there:

" The rocks that have hydrogen, methane and other fluids percolating upwards would seem to be the most favorable locations for the first generation of self-replicating systems (9). Deep in the rocks the temperature, pressure, and chemical surroundings are constant for geologically long periods of time and, therefore, no rapid response to changing circumstances is needed. Ionizing radiations are low and unchanging. No defense is needed against all the photochemical changes induced by ultraviolet light or even by the broad spectrum of visible sunlight.

Bacteriologists have speculated that since a large sub-group of archaebacteria - the most primitive and judged to be the most ancient bacteria - are thermophiles, this may indicate that primitive life evolved at such high temperatures in the first place (10). If it did, and if the archaebacteria are the earliest forms of bacteria, evolved at some depth in the rocks, they may have spread laterally at depth, and they may have evolved and progressed upwards to survive at lower temperatures nearer the surface. Some combination of lateral spread at depth and spread over the surface with subsequent re-adaptation to the conditions at depth will have allowed them to populate all the deep areas that provided suitable conditions to support such life. "

What else is likely deep in the crust? - piezoelectricity.

I haven't found any references to this possibility, but it does seem to me that electrical charges acting on methane, ammonia and water (all found beneath the earth) could have helped form the building blocks necessary for life on Earth (such as amino acids) deep in the Earth's crust.

I have found this, however. In a discussion of the possibility of life on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, this suggestion is canvassed:

" Also, this heating mechanism and the cracks in the icy surface are almost for certain caused by the huge tidal forces to which Europa is subjected because of its proximity with the giant planet Jupiter. Europa is terribly deformed by tidal forces and get regularly elongated and roundish again. This could perhaps suffice so that piezoelectric discharges exist at the ocean's solid floor and may help create the complex molecules and aminoacid the way Miller proposed. "

I wonder if the effect proposed to occur on Europa - piezoelectric discharges producing amino acids from simpler compounds - could not also have happened deep in the crust of Planet Earth.

Some authorities refer to electrical currents in the earth's crust. For example, Edward Bryant in "Natural Hazards", Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2005 writes that "Electrical currents, termed telluric currents (or Earth currents), are ... continually flowing through the Earth's crust." Here is a bit more on telluric currents and some (Australian) "back yard observations" are here. Telluric currents are not piezoelectric effects, but are caused by such things as changes in the Earth's magnetic field.



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