Life in the lithosphere, kinetics and the prospects for life elsewhere

Charles S. Cockell


The global contiguity of life on the Earth today is a result of the high flux of carbon and oxygen from oxygenic photosynthesis over the planetary surface and its use in aerobic respiration. Life’s ability to directly use redox couples from components of the planetary lithosphere in a pre-oxygenic photosynthetic world can be investigated by studying the distribution of organisms that use energy sources normally bound within rocks, such as iron. Microbiological data from Iceland and the deep oceans show the kinetic limitations of living directly off igneous rocks in the lithosphere. Using energy directly extracted from rocks the lithosphere will support about six orders of magnitude less productivity than the present-day Earth, and it would be highly localized. Paradoxically, the biologically extreme conditions of the interior of a planet and the inimical conditions of outer space, between which life is trapped, are the locations from which volcanism and impact events, respectively, originate. These processes facilitate the release of redox couples from the planetary lithosphere and might enable it to achieve planetary-scale productivity approximately one to two orders of magnitude lower than that produced by oxygenic photosynthesis. The significance of the detection of extra-terrestrial life is that it will allow us to test these observations elsewhere and establish an understanding of universal relationships between lithospheres and life. These data also show that the search for extra-terrestrial life must be accomplished by ‘following the kinetics’, which is different from following the water or energy.


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