Early Earth haze may have spurred life, says University of Colorado study

Hazy skies on early Earth could have provided a substantial source of organic material useful for emerging life on the planet, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

In a study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences the week of Nov. 6, the research team measured organic particles produced from the kind of atmospheric gases thought to be present on early Earth. The laboratory experiment modeled conditions measured by the Huygens probe on Saturn's moon, Titan, last year during the NASA-European Space Agency's Cassini mission, according to Margaret Tolbert of CU-Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, one of the study's authors.

The researchers mimicked Titan's hazy skies by exposing methane gas to an ultraviolet lamp, then added carbon dioxide gas to the mix to see if conditions that were probably present on early Earth would produce a similar organic haze. "It turns out that organic haze can form over a wide range of methane and carbon dioxide concentrations," said Tolbert. "This means that hazy conditions could have been present for many millions or even a billion years on Earth while life was evolving."

According to co-author Melissa Trainer of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, the study was the first to measure the chemical properties of aerosols by irradiating methane and carbon dioxide with ultraviolet light. "We found that you can make a lot of organic material virtually out of thin air," said Trainer, who completed her doctoral degree in CU-Boulder's chemistry and biochemistry department at CU in May 2006 under Tolbert.

Scientists believe the atmospheric chemistry of Titan might hold valuable clues to understanding the climate on Earth when life was just forming, said Trainer. Titan is an unusual solar system moon in that it has an atmosphere -- in this case one thick with organic aerosol particle

Contact: Margaret Tolbert
University of Colorado at Boulder

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