Astrobiologists Cast Doubt on Primordial Ooze Theory
When searching for extraterrestrial life, astrobiologists often study the origin of life on Earth in order to determine search parameters when studying the potential for life on other planets. For many years, the prevailing theory has been that life originated from a kind of "primordial soup," or a single location that hosted many different kinds of organic compounds. There have been slight modifications to this theory over time, but no one has proposed a complete paradigm shift - until now. Researchers at the University of Washington recently published a paper in Geobiology which asserted that more environmental complexity than would have occurred in a primordial soup would have been necessary in order to support the beginnings of life.
E.E. Stueken et al. clarified that the information available about early Earth is limited, which in turn limits their research. They also do not claim to have an answer to the question of which environment led to the first microbial life. But they still are able to contend with some confidence that, "Each unique environmental setting in the Hadean [early Earth] would have favored the production of a few important compounds, and mixing processes on large and small scales allowed the products of each setting to interact with each other." As a result, they propose a model of early Earth as a global chemical reactor, and that future studies of the origins of life should consider all the individual environments that contributed to early life.
According to their paper, the researchers have "not attempted to solve the problem of the origin of life, but rather to describe an approach that may prove useful for a ﬁeld that is still in its beginning stages."
This research could have monumental implications for the search for extraterrestrial life; if the findings of Stueken et al are verified, then the focus of the search for extraterrestrial life will also shift. Instead of searching for signs of other planets' equivalent of primordial ooze, they will need to take the environment as a whole into account and consider whether different individual environments are interacting in order to create the potential for extraterrestrial life.