scientists are to investigate the birthplace
of life sea water billions of years
old with new high-tech laser equipment,
the first of its kind in the UK.
The ancient sea water is found trapped in
tiny pockets, called fluid inclusions, within
crystals such as emerald and quartz. The oldest
known examples are found in the rock 3.8 billion
years old the oldest land on the planet.
Although liquid water is believed to have
existed on earth over 4 billion years ago,
obtaining samples from that time is impossible.
The Leeds scientists are using quartz formed
from lava flow under the sea, which hasnt
been affected by geological processes, ensuring
the pockets of water remain exactly as they
were when the rock was formed. They are analysing
rock from 3.8 to 3.2 billion years ago, to
see how the sea changed during that time and
how that might have affected the first life
Dr David Banks (pictured left) said:
The sea was the birthplace of life as
we know it, where the first biological molecules
and microbes formed. It was a major factor
in limiting the levels of oxygen in the earths
early atmosphere at concentrations much lower
than we have today. Understanding its composition
at the time the first life on earth emerged
will help us learn more about how the process
began and how the first forms of life came
Traditional methods of analysis involve crushing
small pieces of the crystal to open the inclusions
and dissolving the salts with water before
using conventional methods to determine the
composition. The crystals we are analysing
contain very few inclusions, said Dr
Banks. These methods couldnt be
used in our case, as thousands of inclusions
need to be tested at once to get a result,
and you can mix up different ages of sea water.
We needed to look for another way.
The scientists gained funding for specialised
equipment the first in the UK
which uses a laser to drill into
a single inclusion (normally between one hundredth
and one thousandth of a millimetre in diameter).
The high temperature then vapourises the sea
water, allowing its chemical composition to
be analysed in a mass spectrometer. The equipment
is called a laser ablation inductively coupled
plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS).
The ICPMS is part of two new £900k laboratories,
which also include state-of-the-art equipment
for dating geological samples, through their
the press release.
the story in the Guardian