Diagram showing how biomolecules could have originated in undersea mica,

Helen Hansma just may have solved the mystery of where you came from – you and every other living thing on the planet, that is. In her recent hypothesis, Hansma, a UCSB research scientist and National Science Foundation program director, postulates that the very first biomolecules may have formed in the sheltered gaps between nanometer-thick layers of underwater mica.

Helen Hansma

The natural cycle of heating and cooling caused by changes between day and night would have caused the mineral layers to move up and down almost imperceptibly. This movement, along with the ebb and flow of the tides, would have provided enough energy for bonds of the first organic molecules to form and break in chemical reactions. Additionally, the mineral would have provided adequate shelter and a surface on which the biomolecules could have grown and multiplied for eons.

Present-day evidence in our own bodies seems to support the Hansma mica hypothesis. First, the potassium which holds together mica sheets has a similar concentration to that found in our own cells. The RNA, or ribonucleic acid, which is thought by some scientists to be the form taken by the very first organic molecules, has a negative charge just like mica. The phosphate groups of RNA are spaced just a half nanometer apart, as are mica’s negative charges. Finally, our own blood shares its high level of sodium with the salty water that could have bathed the mica.

Hansma admits that before forming her mica hypothesis she hadn’t given the origin of life much thought at all. “I had a passion for mica,” she said, “but I certainly never thought I’d have any useful ideas about the origin of life.” Her decades of work dealing with the super-smooth surfaced mineral eventually led to the development of her theory last spring, while examining a piece of mica particularly smothered with organic goo.

Though her theory has yet to be tested, it has the potential to be the most specific and even the most scientifically sound theory on the origin of life yet. Unlike the two most highly discussed theories before now, which envision the first hints of life developing either from a body of water filled with just the right combination of chemicals (a “prebiotic soup”) or a clay particle or mineral surface on which certain reactions took place, Hansma’s scenario would allow the first biomolecules both a protected space in which to form and contact with water to power their reactions. As Hansma herself explains, “There are a lot of controversies about all the hypotheses [of the origin of life]. It’s just really hard to do the experiments: It’s really hard to know how all of these complex processes could have happened. It’s an exciting field but a difficult field for doing research.”

Hansma reports that she plans to begin experimenting to test her theory as early as next February. “I’m expecting other scientists to do some experiments [on it] to,” she says. “There are a lot of exciting experiments to be done.”


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