Genesis of Life » RSS James Cook

Note the red equipment on RSS James Cook (see photo on the above right) which is used to handle the robot submersible during diving operations. Unlike the Alvin which is one of the few submersibles with a cabin for three people, the submersible HbY1S is robotically controlled from the ship. This is rather analogues to a manned landing on Mars compared to the recent robotic expeditions Scientists using a remote-controlled submarine have discovered the deepest known volcanic vent and say the superheated waters inside could contain undiscovered marine species. Experts aboard the RRS James Cook said they found the vent more than three miles (five kilometres) beneath the surface of the Caribbean in an area known as the Cayman Trough. Illustration Courtesy of the UK National Oceanographic Centre, Southhampton (NOCS)

The Autosub6000,(see photo on the right/above), was developed by British engineers and can dive to a depth of 6000 metres. One of its most spectacular feats was the investigation of the Cayman trough in April 2010. Map of the Cayman Trough is shown on the left/above. Both illustrations are courtesy of the UK National Oceanographic Centre, Southhampton (NOCS).

The discoveries of life in the vicinity of thermal vents several kilometres below the ocean surfaces has totally revolutionised all previously held ideas about life and the beginning of life. For a start some of the types of organisms living in the abyssal depths are so bizarre and even stranger the most outlandish ideas of science fiction. At the bottom of the food chain are hosts of anaerobic microorganisms which thrive under the conditions of temperature and pressure undreamt of by earlier biologists and prosper in high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide and other toxic compounds. They provide food for animals that, although using dissolved oxygen as all animals do, are able to live in the noxious mixture of chemicals that are deadly poisins to most forms of animal life – in fact at the top of the food chain are carniverous octopi, a highly evolved and intelligent life form. As well as such familiar creatures there are many types of animal life that have never been seen before such as tube worms and siteless shrimps. Some of these (tube worms, octocorals, crab and octopus) are spotted near vent. ring/chimney of fire expedition 28 June-5 August 2002 as illustrated below - courtesy of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The really significant fact however is the presence of the primitive microorganisms which belong to a type known as extremeophiles. They can live at fantastically high temperatures and very acidic conditions as well as metabolising through unfamiliar biochemical pathways. Some are bacteria and others belong to an entirely different life kingdom known as the ARCHAE. It is not yet proved but is highly strongly indicated that life began in the abyssal depths of the oceans and not in the shallow sunlit waters of the continental shelf.

Tube worms.




Long before a time when a special group of bacteria (the cyanobacteria) filled the air and the waters with molecular oxygen, the only life that existed were microbes to whom oxygen was a deadly poison (we call them anaerobes). Among them were the Archae similar to those that even now inhabit the abyssal depths at the volcanic thermal vents. Although they are very different to the familiar forms of life we know at the surface of the Earth, they have one thing in common they are composed of chemicals called nucleic acids and proteins and grab energy from their surroundings by uniting two 'molecules' of adenosine diphosphate and phosphate ions into adenosine triphoshate. They also use a number of special chemicals called co-enzymes which are related to vitamins. Although their metabolism is somewhat bizarre and their genetics more simple they still use the same basic biochemistry as all the organisms with which we are familiar including the higher plants and animals. In a sense all life is one life - the same basic rules of biochemistry govern all archae, bacteria, fungi, plants and animals so far found on Earth. This suggests that life had a common origin probably only a few hundred million years after the formation of our planet. If so why only one form of biochemistry – why should one form only have evolved. This is a question of paramount importance. Did it only start once or did it start many times in many places (probably many different thermal vents) and if so why did only one form triumph. To answer this question we have to go even further back to a time before cellular life began – to a time of chemical evolution. Somewhere and somewhen in the stygian darkness of the abyssal depths small molecules were evolving into large molecules and these large molecules were beginning to replicate copies or near copies of themselves. Thus 'CHEMICAL EVOLUTION' must have preceded 'BIOLOGICAL EVOLUTION' and to understand what this implies we must begin by explaining a little CHEMISTRY and the Chemistry of Life.

Ray Goodwin

Somewhere there are mountains
Glistening in the snow
Somewhere there are mountains
That we shall never know

Somewhere there are rivers
Flowing fast and free
Somewhere there are rivers
That we can never see

Somewhere there are oceans
And sun drenched island sands
Forests full of creatures
In vastly distant lands

Somewhere there’s a planet
Beneath an alien star
The people watch our tiny sun
And wonder where we are

One day perhaps we’ll find them
Across the void of space
Perhaps through ways as yet unknown
We’ll meet them face to face

The author of this web site Ray Goodwin holds B.Sc. Degrees from London University in Chemistry, Geology and Physiology and an M.Sc. in Biochemistry. He has spent most of his professional life teaching in Colleges of Technology. On his retirement he has entered the fields of astronomy, astrochemistry, astrobiology and space sciences. He has spent a great deal of his retirement in visiting amateur astronomy societies and in attending European Space Agency Symposia in ESTEC in the Netherlands and other scientific conferences in England and Sweden. He regularly attends the yearly European Astrofest in South Kensington London and other meetings in the UK. He has written scientific articles and given a number of lectures on diverse scientific subjects.

Readers of this web site are invited to e-mail the author ( and discuss their opinions of the topics dealt with and suggest any changes which they think may be helpful.

Life in the Cosmos Website
Version 01.00 - April 20, 2015.