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Life’s Traces in Mineral Evolution

Now here’s a comprehensive task for you. Take about a dozen primordial minerals found in interstellar dust grains and figure out what processes — physical, chemical, biological — led to the appearance of the thousands of minerals we find on our planet today. The job was undertaken by Robert Hazen and Dominic Papineau (Carnegie Institution Geophysical Laboratory) and colleagues, and it produced startling results: Of the roughly 4300 known types of minerals on Earth (fifty new types identified each year), up to two-thirds can be linked to biological activity.

Mineral evolution? In a sense, although Hazen is quick to qualify the statement:

“It’s a different way of looking at minerals from more traditional approaches. Mineral evolution is obviously different from Darwinian evolution — minerals don’t mutate, reproduce or compete like living organisms. But we found both the variety and relative abundances of minerals have changed dramatically over more than 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history.”

Those early dust grains gave us a set of basic chemical elements, but it took the temperature and pressure changes as the Solar System coalesced to produce a wider range of minerals. Hazen and Papineau’s work suggests that sixty different minerals appeared in this era, with many more forming when volcanic activity and water eventually came into play on planetary surfaces. Mars and Venus, with about five hundred mineral species in their surface rocks, offer a glimpse of this phase of mineral formation. On Earth, plate tectonics, creating movement among continents and churning the ocean basins, produced new chemical environments that brought the mineral count up past a thousand.

The key to true mineral diversification, though, is life. Because so many important minerals are oxidized weathering products, they owe their existence to an oxygen-rich atmosphere, itself the result of photosynthesis. The lovely blue and green minerals azurite and malachite, for example, could only form in an oxygen-rich environment. The development of microorganisms and plants also plays into the formation of clay minerals, while ocean dwelling creatures with shells and skeletons develop deposits of minerals like calcite. In every respect, the byplay between life and minerals is complex. In a useful video describing his work, Hazen explains:

“The interplay between minerals and life works both ways. It turns out that the origin of life may have been absolutely dependent on certain minerals. Mineral surfaces are the perfect place to concentrate, to select, to organize, to make larger structures like polymers, chains of molecules that have biological function. So minerals may have played a key role in life’s origins. but by the same token — and this is what I find so amazing — life played a key role in the minerals’ origin. If you have a world where you have no oxygen, perhaps Mars, certainly Mercury, these minerals will not form. there’s no way to produce them. Life has a role in the origin of minerals just the way minerals have a role in the origin of life.”

Image: This lustrous azurite under intense light shows transparency and overgrowth on malachite clusters just below the surface. Only the presence of oxygen can produce these minerals. Origin: New Cobar Mine, New South Wales, Australia. Credit: Vic Cloete.

All of this leaves a record that can be examined through the science of mineralogy and it’s one that could be exploited as we examine other worlds. We could, in other words, see evidence of life in the mineral diversity we find on a distant planet. From the paper on this work:

Arguably the single most important cause for mineralogical diversification is Earth’s surface oxygenation associated with biological activity, which may be responsible directly or indirectly for more than two thirds of all known mineral species. Thus, for at least the last 2.5 billion years, and possible since the emergence of life, Earth’s mineralogy has evolved in parallel with biology. Accordingly, remote observations of the mineralogy of other moons and planets may provide crucial evidence for biolgical influences beyond Earth.

In Hazen’s view, the connection between the sciences could not be more profound, and the story of the development of individual minerals on a world like ours is inseparable from the changes wrought by biology. This is a provocative way of looking at mineralogy that stresses the development of a mineral identity over time, with obvious ramifications for planetary history. The paper is Hazen, Papineau et al., “Mineral evolution,” American Mineralogist Vol. 93, pp. 1693-1720 (in press).

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James M. Essig November 14, 2008, 15:28

    Hi Paul;

    I find the above photo of the blue and green minerals azurite and malachite to be very beautiful.

    Knowing how mineral deposits form such on the Earth’s moon, on Mars with the possible driving influence of past life, on Mercury especially in the shaded polar regions within craters, and on many of the other moons within our solar system with hard rocky crusts, can no doubt help scientists and engineers plan the construction of living quarters and other infrastructure from insitu resources. Knowing the mineralogy of the planetary bodies’ crust could prove very important in quarying stone blocks made of appropriate materials for shelters and shielding as well as provide better mineral candidates for concrete made insitu.

    As a young kid, I enjoyed rock collecting, and as I am sure many of the Tau Zero Centauri Dreams readership would agree, the mining of beautiful and naturally formed minerals from other planetary bodies would make for outstanding sovieneers at least until the novelty of such wore off.



  • coldcall November 15, 2008, 13:32

    I’ve just been reading an old book by Paul Davies (Cosmic Blueprint), and while it is a little dated i found his explanation of chaos theory and the rather unusual behaviour of non-linear dynamics facinating. I think the ability of chaotic systems to organize, or arguably in some cases to self-organise is relevant to the question of mineral diversity in the universe.

    It just seems to me that as our non-linear universe evolves more minerals and differential forms of matter develop. The universe is becoming more and more complex and has been doing so from the moment of the BB.

    Should not chaos theory, or whatever underlying law is responsoble for it be given a far greater postion amonsgt the primary laws of physics? Seriously im not trying to highjack the paper about the minerals but my belief and i think there is now resonable evidence to suggest it, is that all these minerals came about because of complexity caused by whatever drives chaos theory.

    And if i may really speculate I’d perhaps life is somehow enabled by chaos theory, as if its kind of hard-wired into the nature of the universe. It would solve the mystery about how life first started. Maybe complexity and life is inevitable in a universe which appears governed from the moment of creation by symmetry breaking events.

    Does that sound crazy?

  • James M. Essig November 15, 2008, 22:21

    Hi coldcall;

    I remember reading the Cosmic Blueprint by Paul Davies. I think my copy is somewhere stacked away but I might just have to find it, dust if off, and reread it.

    The entire universe may be in a state of transition to greater complexity by natural processes, and in the future, to a significant degree by any existent ETI civilizations and humnity as well.

    Some fairly contemporary theologian or philosopher, if I am not mistaken, referred to matter or mattergy as the urge to live at some fundamental ontological level that may never be discerned by experimental science, perhaps not even mathematically; a sort of ultimate form of hidden variables.

    Regardless, we can definately see the tendancy of natural systems to develope life almost every where on Earth it can exist. I suspect that the same tendancy exists ubiquitously throughout the universe.

    Upon seeing how such life can develop from natural processes, the idea of what the meaning or purpose of such a capacity for life has been a subject that I have often thought about.

    I am not trying to propose any faithbased agenda here, nor any form of spiritualism, but I find, as a Catholic, that a fair question is why does something bother to exist at all rather than nothing. I have often found my self as of late asking why does any God bother to exist rather than not exist. To me, saying that God exist because he self existent or pure being does not answer the question. I feel there is a deeper mystery to this concept. One can ask, why does pure being bother to exist in the first place.

    As we explore the eternal blackness of space time, we may never know the answers to these questions and in a sense, the exciting and mysterious purpose for the universe may inspire us with a sense of awe and wonderment.

    On a more down to Earth level, it seems that the natural evolution and development of life on Earth, has some guiding principle within mother nature herself.

    When we send our first interstellar probes to nearby F, G, K,and M class stars to land on any terrestrial-like planets, I am often curious as to what sort of biospheres such planets have and whether or not life on these planets is just as opportuinistic as life on Earth.

    It would be interesting to come across a terrestrial-like planet that have been in evolution for 10 billion if not 12 billion years. I can imagine the extreme variety of minerals that might exist on such planets, especially those with biospheres.



  • coldcall November 16, 2008, 13:06

    Hi James

    Interesting insights, thankyou. Yes do re-read Cosmic Blueprint because i think its just as relevant today, and most of the questions Davies ponders are still unanswered. I’d never read that book before until i found it recently in a 2nd hand book shop. But i am a big fan of Davies style of science writing.

    The fact that natural systems tend to evolve towards complexity is facinating, and i believe; a serious clue to how life gets started against what appears to be huge odds. I now think the odds are actually pretty good considering the nature of chaos and complexity. There only has to be a slight natural bias towards complexity and then life becomes almost inevitable. Kind of like how there was some slight bias after the BB which allowed a small proportion of matter to overcome its antimatter annihilator.

    Personally i am agnostic, so im not suggesting there is any hidden intelligence or wizard of Oz behind the curtain. This bias towards complexity could just be lucky and explained in the same way the weak anthropic principle is explained. Ie: it had to be a complexity biased universe otherwise we would not be here to notice.

    However, going out on a limb here, i think all these “flukes” start becoming a little tenous..to say the least. I have become very jaded about the typcial multi-verse, many-worlds explanations for anything that appears terribly coincidental. While i dont think we (humans) represent the centre of the universe i do think we’ve over-done Copernican reasoning to the point of ignoring potentially important clues.

  • Hans Bausewein November 16, 2008, 18:33

    The arxiv.org link: http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.1443

    BTW: off-topic, but we were there anyway

  • Hans Bausewein November 16, 2008, 18:37

    I recently read a New Scientist article about the Copernican principle on cosmological scale:



    I think it should be backed by observations in the long term. The Copernican principle is a logically correct idea, but it does not exclude the possibility that we are in some kind of special place.

    The arxiv.org link: http://arxiv.org/abs/0807.1443

  • James M. Essig November 17, 2008, 0:27

    Hi coldcall;

    Thanks for sharing your valuable insights.

    Regarding mineralogy, I remember a Star Trek episode, one of the original series, wherein some of the Enterprize crew members visited the surface and sub-surface regions of a planet wherein tunnel boring creatures living within had bodies made essentially of rock or rock-like minerals and which had very high body temperatures, commensurate with their ability to bore through rock by melting it and, if I am not mistaken, ingesting it.

    My memory of this episode leads me to ponder if mineral based life forms could really develop given the right conditions and a long enough time to evolve. Perhaps some planet that has a surface temperature somewhere between that of Earth and Venus, but which is perhaps 10 billion or more years old instead of the 4.5 billion years old Earth might be able to produce such life forms.



  • ljk February 6, 2009, 14:58

    Ancient sponges leave their mark

    By Jonathan Amos
    Science reporter, BBC News

    The rocks date to a time of dramatic glaciation on Earth

    Traces of animal life have been found in rocks dating back 635 million years.

    The evidence takes the form of chemical markers that are highly distinctive of sponges when they die and their bodies break down in rock-forming sediments.

    The discovery in Oman pushes back the earliest accepted date for animal life on Earth by tens of millions of years.

    Scientists tell Nature magazine that the creatures’ existence will help them understand better what the planet looked like all that time ago.

    “The fact that we can detect these signals shows that sponges were ecologically important on the seafloor at that time,” said lead author Gordon Love, from the University of California, Riverside.

    “We’re not saying we captured the first animal; we’re saying they’re an early animal phylum and we’re capturing them when their biomass was significant.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk March 18, 2009, 15:54

    March 17, 2009

    Molecules From Space May Have Affected Life On Earth

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    A decade ago researchers analyzed amino acids from space, brought to Earth in meteorite which landed in Australia, finding a prevalence of “left-handed” amino acids over their “right-handed” form. Now, a new study of dust from meteorites supports this finding, and offers new clues to a long-standing mystery about how life works on its most basic, molecular level.

    “We found more support for the idea that biological molecules, like amino acids, created in space and brought to Earth by meteorite impacts help explain why life is left-handed,” said Dr. Daniel Glavin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “By that I mean why all known life uses only left-handed versions of amino acids to build proteins.”

    20 different amino acids arrange themselves in a variety of ways to build millions of different proteins. Amino acid molecules can be built in two ways that are mirror images of each other, like your hands. Although life based on right-handed amino acids would presumably work fine, “you can’t mix them,” says Dr. Jason Dworkin of NASA Goddard, co-author of the study.

    “If you do, life turns to something resembling scrambled eggs — it’s a mess. Since life doesn’t work with a mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids, the mystery is: how did life decide — what made life choose left-handed amino acids over right-handed ones?”

    Over the last four years, a team lead by Glavin, carefully analyzed samples of meteorites with an abundance of carbon, called carbonaceous chondrites. The researchers looked for the amino acid isovaline and discovered that three types of carbonaceous meteorites had more of the left-handed version than the right-handed variety – as much as a record 18 percent more in the often-studied Murchison meteorite.

    “Finding more left-handed isovaline in a variety of meteorites supports the theory that amino acids brought to the early Earth by asteroids and comets contributed to the origin of only left-handed based protein life on Earth,” said Glavin.

    Full article here:


  • ljk June 12, 2009, 10:25

    June 11, 2009

    Add Heat, Then Tectonics: Narrowing the Hunt for Life in Space

    Written by Anne Minard

    In order to support life, an exoplanet should simply hang out where heat from its star is just right for liquid water. Right?

    Not necessarily. New research is suggesting that in order to support life, such a planet might also need plate tectonics, and those are triggered in a narrower band of distance from the parent star.

    Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer, is lead author of a paper to be published by The Astrophysical Journal Letters that uses new calculations from computer modeling to define a “tidal habitable zone.”

    Besides liquid water, scientists think plate tectonics are needed to pull excess carbon from its atmosphere and confine it in rocks, to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Tectonics, or the movement of the plates that make up a planet’s surface, typically is driven by radioactive decay in the planet’s core, but a star’s gravity can cause tides in the planet, which creates more energy to drive plate tectonics.

    “If you have plate tectonics, then you can have long-term climate stability, which we think is a prerequisite for life,” Barnes said.

    The tectonic forces cannot be so severe that geologic events quickly repave a planet’s surface and destroy life that might have gotten a foothold, he said. The planet must be at a distance where tugging from the star’s gravitational field generates tectonics without setting off extreme volcanic activity that resurfaces the planet in too short a time for life to prosper.

    “Overall, the effect of this work is to reduce the number of habitable environments in the universe, or at least what we have thought of as habitable environments,” Barnes said. “The best places to look for habitability are where this new definition and the old definition overlap.”

    Full article here:


  • John Colwell April 2, 2011, 17:09

    I am no academic just a rock hound with a B.A . Over the years these controlled chaos theories have fascinated me. I have felt that the newly defined mineral evolution permitted by almost perfect conditions like plate tectonics and biological processes almost mirrors whats going on in micro and macro examples. As I sit, It is easy to wonder what other planets have in the way of different elements as well as molecules that form amazing new minerals. Whatever one’s spiritual path it is obviously a glorious life we all experience. Like seeing beauty in a atomically perfect crystal. Why are atoms shaped like galaxies?

  • ljk April 8, 2011, 12:41

    Evolution of primordial planets in relation to the cosmological origin of life

    Authors: N. Chandra Wickramasinghe (Cardiff Univ. UK), Jamie H. Wallis (Cardiff Univ. UK), Carl H. Gibson (Univ. Cal. San Diego US), Rudolph E. Schild (Harvard Univ. US)

    (Submitted on 29 Aug 2010 (v1), last revised 7 Apr 2011 (this version, v2))

    Abstract: We explore the conditions prevailing in primordial planets in the framework of the HGD cosmologies as discussed by Gibson and Schild. The initial stages of condensation of planet-mass H-4He gas clouds in trillion-planet clumps is set at 300,000 yr (0.3My) following the onset of plasma instabilities when ambient temperatures were >1000K.

    Eventual collapse of the planet-cloud into a solid structure takes place against the background of an expanding universe with declining ambient temperatures. Stars form from planet mergers within the clumps and die by supernovae on overeating of planets.

    For planets produced by stars, isothermal free fall collapse occurs initially via quasi equilibrium polytropes until opacity sets in due to molecule and dust formation. The contracting cooling cloud is a venue for molecule formation and the sequential condensation of solid particles, starting from mineral grains at high temperatures to ice particles at lower temperatures, water-ice becomes thermodynamically stable between 7 and 15 My after the initial onset of collapse, and contraction to form a solid icy core begins shortly thereafter. Primordial-clump-planets are separated by ~ 1000 AU, reflecting the high density of the universe at 30,000 yr.

    Exchanges of materials, organic molecules and evolving templates readily occur, providing optimal conditions for an initial origin of life in hot primordial gas planet water cores when adequately fertilized by stardust. The condensation of solid molecular hydrogen as an extended outer crust takes place much later in the collapse history of the protoplanet. When the object has shrunk to several times the radius of Jupiter, the hydrogen partial pressure exceeds the saturation vapour pressure of solid hydrogen at the ambient temperature and condensation occurs.

    Comments: 14 pages 7 figures SPIE Conference 7819 Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology XIII Proceedings, Aug 3-5, 2010, San Diego, Ed. Richard B. Hoover

    Subjects: Cosmology and Extragalactic Astrophysics (astro-ph.CO)

    Cite as: arXiv:1008.4955v2 [astro-ph.CO]