While scientists know that the first life on Earth almost three billion years ago began with the simplest form, its origins still remain a mystery. Sure Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection presented in his 1859 book 'The Origin of Species' sounds plausible, but it still does not explain how that first living microorganism came into being. A team of scientists led by University of California Santa Cruz Professor Andrew Fisher believe that an unusual ecosystem located at the bottom of our oceans may provide some clues.
So from July 11th to July 26th, 2013, the scientists anchored their highly sophisticated research vessel, the R/V Atlantis at eastern point of the Juan de Fuca Ridge that lies off the coasts of the State of Washington in the United States and the Province of British Columbia in Canada. Then, using remotely operated vehicles they slowly extracted samples of rock, sediment and marine life that they think may finally solve the mystery. The area was selected due to its unusual geological features.
Created by the separation of the Juan de Fuca Plate and the Pacific Plate, the ridge is an underwater volcanic mountain range that spans 300 miles along the coast of Oregon and Vancouver. Similar to active volcanoes on land, the undersea springs called hydrothermal vents release scalding plumes of 400°F lava-heated water containing sulfur minerals. Because these minerals cause the plumes to look like black clouds, the vents are often referred to as 'black smokers'. When the super heated water comes in contact with the frigid seawater, the minerals crystallize and settle on the sea floor around the vent openings. As the mineral deposits grow over time, they transform into chimney-like structures that can get as high as a hundred feet tall.
Besides their majestic look, these sulfur-rich chemicals also do something extraordinary - provide enough energy to sustain an entire community of microorganisms, which is why the researchers are so interested. That's because these tiny creatures which use the minerals as their source of energy instead of the sun, may not only be the key to how life first originated on earth, but could also be useful in determining if there is life on other planetary bodies such as Jupiter's moons, where the conditions are similar.
Whether this group of scientists will be able to solve the age-old question about the origin of life remains to be seen, but for the first time their entire mission was streamed live and is still available to enjoy - so be sure to check it out and read more about it, by going to www.explorationnow.org/atlantis.