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Methane: Fuel or Exhaust at the Emergence of Life?

Abstract : A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. —Aristotle Abstract As many of the methanogens first encountered at hydrothermal vents were thermophilic to hyperthermophilic and comprised one of the lower roots of the evolutionary tree, it has been assumed that methanogenesis was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, pathway to life. It being well known that hydrothermal springs associated with serpentinization also bore abiotic methane, it had been further assumed that emergent biochemistry merely adopted and quickened this supposed serpentinization reaction. Yet, recent hydrothermal experiments simulating serpentinization have failed to generate methane so far, thus casting doubt on this assumption. The idea that the inverse view is worthy of debate, that is, that methanotrophy was the earlier, is stymied by the ''fact'' that methanotrophy itself has been termed ''reverse methanogenesis,'' so allotting the methanogens the founding pedigree. Thus, attempting to suggest instead that methanogenesis might be termed reverse methanotrophy would require ''unlearning''—a challenge to the subconscious! Here we reexamine the ''impossibility'' of methano-trophy predating methanogenesis as in what we have termed the ''denitrifying methanotrophic acetogenic pathway.'' Advantages offered by such thinking are that methane would not only be a fuel but also a ready source of reduced carbon to combine with formate or carbon monoxide—available in hydrothermal fluids—to generate acetate, a target molecule of the first autotrophs. And the nitrate/nitrite required for the putative oxidation of methane with activated NO would also be a ready source of fixed nitrogen for amination reactions. Theoretical conditions for such a putative pathway would be met in a hydrothermal green rust-bearing exhalative pile and associated chimneys subject to proton and electron counter gradients. This hypothesis could be put to test in a high-pressure hydrothermal reaction chamber in which a cool carbonate/nitrate/nitrite-bearing early acidulous ocean simulant is juxtaposed across a precipitate membrane to an alkaline solution of hydrogen and methane.
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Michael Russell, Wolfgang Nitschke. Methane: Fuel or Exhaust at the Emergence of Life?. Astrobiology, Mary Ann Liebert, 2017, 17 (10), pp.1053 - 1066. ⟨10.1089/ast.2016.1599⟩. ⟨hal-01696601⟩

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