Lightning could have been an essential chemical element in the appearance of life on earth

How life on earth came about is a question that is still debated in the scientific community. Several hypotheses have been made for this purpose. But a recent discovery in the suburbs of Chicago, USA, could change the game. As stated above, this is an accidental discovery. It dates back to 2016. That year, a piece of fulgurite, a mass of molten sediment created by lightning, was found in Glen Ellyn.

A sample entrusted to scientists at the University of Leeds

In light of this discovery, the local authorities quickly took a sample and returned it to Wheaton College. The sample was then given to a team of researchers at the University of Leeds, UK, for analysis. In fact, at this point the group was already working on a study of the formation of fulgurites. Benjamin Hess (Ph.D. and lead author of the study) and his colleagues were surprised to find that the sample contained a large amount of Schreibersite, a water-soluble phosphate mineral.

Phosphorus, an important chemical element for life

For Hess, this discovery could modify the theories about the origin of soluble phosphates in water. Indeed, phosphorus is an important chemical element for life. Cells need it to make DNA and RNA. It is also required for other important functions. The earth is certainly full of phosphorus, but the element is mainly enclosed in minerals that cannot dissolve in water. Due to the importance of the latter for microorganisms, this could slow down the development of life.

Phosphorus, an important chemical element for life. Photo credit: Shutterstock / Jaswe

A discovery that could be useful in finding extraterrestrial life

One theory suggests that most of the soluble phosphorus was provided in small amounts by extraterrestrial rocks. However, researchers believe that the number of meteorites hitting Earth decreased dramatically after the event that created the moon, making the amount of available phosphorus insufficient.

In addition, the effects of extraterrestrial rocks are often more devastating than beneficial to living things. Benjamin Hess believes that lightning, which often hits the earth, is the source of the phosphorus that contributed to the development of life.

This discovery could not only help unravel the secrets of our planet’s past, but also be useful in finding life on other worlds, especially on exoplanets. Note that the study was published in the journal Nature.