In Search of Life’s Smoking Gun – Issue 17: Big Bangs

It was nearly midnight aboard the research vessel Atlantis. The ship was about a thousand miles west of Costa Rica, where she’d sailed from, hovering over a hydrothermal vent field in the eastern Pacific. Rutgers microbiologist Costantino Vetriani, seated a few feet away from me in the dark control room, radiated energy despite the hour. He peered intently through his glasses at dozens of monitors, occasionally running a hand over his shaved head. On the live video feed from the remotely operated submersible on the bottom, we watched thick black smoke with a scorching temperature of over 350 degrees Celsius billow from a rocky tower a mile beneath us. It was a stunning sight, an underwater pillar releasing a storm of pent-up energy from the dark bowels of the Earth. Vetriani, a trim Italian clad in a T-shirt reading “RNA: The Other Nucleic Acid,” observed the raw power, his dark eyes shining. “A black smoker is a window into hell,” he said with a grin.

In fact, the black smoker may be a window into the eruption of life on Earth. Vetriani is part of a team of scientists who have come to the vents to study the microbes that…
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