Your engagement ring could hold the secrets to the origins of life

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online

New models detailed in a recent edition of Nature Geoscience have revealed that diamonds can provide information about how carbon-bearing fluids move – a discovery that could provide new information about how life on Earth began and what it looked like in its earliest stages.

The research was led by Johns Hopkins geochemist Dimitri Sverjensky and colleagues with the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), a 10-year multinational and multidisciplinary effort to unlock the planet’s secrets by studying organic carbon, and revealed calculations of how much and what types of the element was present in subduction-zone fluids deep below the Earth’s surface.

“The deep earth carbon cycle is an area of research that has been neglected until the start of the Deep Carbon Observatory five years ago,” Sverjensky, from the university’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, told Popular Science on Monday. “These studies will also help us make a connection to the shallow carbon cycle of interest to current global changes.”

These fluids, the study authors explained, could have been carried from the surface into the upper mantle in the form of small plants and shells through movements of the Earth’s crust, also known as plate tectonics. It marks the first time that scientists have determined how much carbon can be mobilized in these fluids, and they believe diamonds could provide additional insights, such as what happens to the water at these depths.

Diamonds, Popular Science explains, are comprised of carbon atoms that are linked together. Each of the atoms shares electrons with four others, forming an incredibly-strong five-sided crystalline structure. However, this structure only forms under the high temperatures and intense pressures typically found hundreds of miles below the surface of the planet.

Carbon is the chemical basis of all known life on Earth, and its involvement in deep carbon cycles may have played a critical role in the origin of life. Until recently, scientists knew very little about how much carbon is stored underground, or how it reacts when its near the Earth’s core. Finding those answers could reveal much about life on our world, the website said.

“We don’t know how the building blocks for life originated, whether from outer space or the earth itself. Diamonds are helpful for this kind of research because they have inclusions, which provide us clues about what happens in the very deep earth,” Sverjensky explained, noting that the jewels could reveal much about how carbon-bearing fluids move.

Since that “is what makes earth habitable,” he said, “you could fairly say it’s critical to understand.” Unlike previous models, which “hit a limit at about nine miles down,” his new model “allows us to make predictions down to 111 miles, which gets us into the zone where we suspect there are intense chemical interactions.”

“Organic species like acetate and propionate – which we’ve known for decades exist at shallow levels – and methane and carbon dioxide could be in equilibrium at high pressures. This helps us to understand how carbon might be carried in water so deep,” Sverjensky added. “It also suggests that a chemical basis for life is much deeper than we previously thought.”

The DCO, which was founded in 2009, recently presented 100 deep carbon science-related projects at the American Geophysical Union’s 2014 Fall Meeting, held from December 15 and 19 in San Francisco. Included among those presentations were reports detailing recent findings on the quantities, movements, forms and origins of deep carbon.

“Understanding carbon at a fundamental level is critical to the health and wellbeing of society, and deep carbon is an important part of that story that we just don’t know very much about,” the organization’s executive director, Robert Hazen, recently said in a statement.

“Carbon is not only the element of life but now the premiere element of science,” he added. “Deep carbon has proven an incredibly powerful organizing principle for a range of observational, experimental, and modeling programs. It has given us a strong handle on Earth’s extraordinary history.”


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