All the Conditions Required for Life to Appear Are Here, in Antarctica’s Amazing Ice Stalactites

Brinicles, more than ice fingers of death, may have driven the formation of life

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Two years ago, the BBC’s Frozen Planet captured one of Antarctica’s most intriguing wonders—the brinicle. A slow-creeping “ice finger of death,” a brinicle forms when super-salty water is extruded into the ocean from the ice rafting on the surface. As the cold salt water sinks, it causes the surrounding ocean waters “to freeze in an icy sheath.” In the video captured by the Frozen Planet team, you’re introduced to the brinicle as a threat to life, a plodding tendril of deathly cold. But new research led by the University of Grenada’s Julian Cartwright paints the brinicle in a new light—as a bringer of life rather than a destroyer.

In the study, the scientists discuss the process that drives the salt out of the floating sea ice—the source of brine forms the brinicle. They suggest that this process sets up many of the conditions that are thought to be needed for the formation of life—the steps that took the original primordial soup and turned it to real biological life.

“The origin of life is often proposed to have occurred in a hot environment, like the one found in hydrothermal vents,” the scientists write.

It is proposed that chemical-garden processes are involved in the mechanism. But there is a different school of thought that presents sea ice as a promoter of the emergence of the first life. Brine rejection in sea ice produces all the conditions that are considered necessary for life to appear.

Brine extrusion causes chemicals to be concentrated, and the ice acts as a surface on which chemical reactions can take place. The sudden switch from brine to ice to sea water causes gradients in acidity and other factors that can drive chemical reactions. MIT’s Technology Review:

Cartwright and co’s most interesting observation is that brinicles also create chemical gradients, electric potentials and membranes–all the conditions necessary for the formation of life.

Exactly the same conditions occur at hydrothermal vents which have been the focus of attention for many biologists wanting to better understand how life might have formed.

“What’s more,” says MIT, “brinicles could well be ubiquitous on ocean bearing planets and moons such as Europa, where they might play equally interesting roles.”

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