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U. of Colorado study shows early Earth atmosphere hydrogen-rich, favorable to life

A new University of Colorado at Boulder study indicates Earth in its infancy probably had substantial quantities of hydrogen in its atmosphere, a surprising finding that may alter the way many scientists think about how life began on the planet.

Published in the April 7 issue of Science Express, the online edition of Science Magazine, the study concludes traditional models estimating hydrogen escape from Earth's atmosphere several billions of years ago are flawed. The new study indicates up to 40 percent of the early atmosphere was hydrogen, implying a more favorable climate for the production of pre-biotic organic compounds like amino acids, and ultimately, life.

The paper was authored by doctoral student Feng Tian, Professor Owen Toon and Research Associate Alexander Pavlov of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics with Hans De Sterck of the University of Waterloo. The study was supported by the NASA Institute of Astrobiology and NASA's Exobiology Program.

"I didn't expect this result when we began the study," said Tian, a doctoral student in CU-Boulder's Astrobiology Center at LASP and chief author of the paper. "If Earth's atmosphere was hydrogen-rich as we have shown, organic compounds could easily have been produced."

Scientists believe Earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago, and geologic evidence indicates life may have begun on Earth roughly a billion years later.

"This study indicates that the carbon dioxide-rich, hydrogen-poor Mars and Venus-like model of Earth's early atmosphere that scientists have been working with for the last 25 years is incorrect," said Toon. In such atmospheres, organic molecules are not produced by photochemical reactions or electrical discharges.

Toon said the premise that early Earth had a CO2-dominated atmosphere long after its formation has caused many scientists to look for clues to the origin of life in hydrothermal vents in the sea, fresh-wat
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Contact: Owen Toon
btoon@lasp.colorado.edu
303-492-1534
University of Colorado at Boulder
7-Apr-2005


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