So, Russell and his colleagues have built a system resembling a "pillared Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz," NASA wrote in a release.
They have manufactured a gel that resembles the porus vents of yore, as Nature reported in 2009. A series of glass tubes, thin barrels and valves recreate as-best-as-possible the early conditions. The goal is to see if the system spontaneously generates organic molecules such as ethane, methane and even simple amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins that form the basis of life.
News: How Ancient Life May Have Come About
So far, the scientists have been able to produce acetate, a compound generated by a pathway present in many bacteria, according to a recent study. Acetate can be a base for many key biological molecules.
In fact, compare some of the most ancient enzymes in life forms - acetyl coenzyme A synthase, for instance, which helps us generate energy - to minerals at these vents, and you'd see striking structural similarities, according to a recent study in Biochimica et Biophysica Acta.
All this is evidence in favor of Russell's theory.
"What we're trying to do is to climb down and create the conditions for the very first steps to the beginning of life as we know it," said Russell in a statement. "That's the hard part."
Image: Hydrothermal vents. Credit: NOAA Image: Lauren White, a member of the Russell's team, is turning on a valve. This will send ocean water through a membrane that mimics early vents to see the process generates organic molecules that could be the basis of life. She will alternate the ocean water with alkaline liquid that mimics conditions inside the early hydrothermal vents. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.