The driver turned off the engine of his rumbling Russian- army troop carrier at the edge of a deep canyon carved by a stream of glacial meltwater. Our little research group–which included Stanford graduate students Jamie and Meaghan, postdocs Jan and Jake from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and our guide, Vladimir–clambered down from the truck for a welcome stretch after a jarring five-hour drive from Petropavlovsk. Then we shouldered our packs and began to climb, crunching over packed snow and ice between house-size boulders. When we stopped for breath and looked back downhill, we could see the ash and lava flows from past eruptions eroded into hills and valleys, with scattered patches of low shrubs in sheltered areas far below. The jagged volcanic landscape of Kamchatka defined the horizon. Above us loomed our goal: the blasted peak of Mount Mutnowski, a volcano that had erupted just a few years before.
Two hours later and 2,000 feet higher, we peered over the edge of the crater. It was hard to grasp the chaos beneath us. There was nothing alive in this landscape of black and gray rock except our team of six. A small glacier on the other side was melting into the crater, and distant roaring sounds emanated from deep inside as steam rose into the blue sky. Earth, air, fire, and water, I thought–the ancient elements, brought together here in far eastern Russia, stirred by heat energy left over from the beginning of our planet’s history. Except for the glacier, this place seemed like a remnant from that time–a model of what Earth was like four billion years ago, before life began. We made our way down into the crater, at times wearing gas masks to protect our lungs against caustic gases.
My fieldwork in Kamchatka was supported by a NASA grant, and our main goal was to better understand geochemical conditions related to the origin of life on Earth and perhaps on Mars. Earlier publications in Russian-language journals had reported that organic compounds, including amino acids, were present in the boiling springs and vapors of volcanoes in Kamchatka. Everyone agrees that the origin of life required a source of organic compounds, but no one really knows what the primary source might have been. One possibility is that most of the compounds were produced by geochemical synthesis in volcanic regions early in Earth’s history, and it would be a real breakthrough if we could detect similar reactions in volcanoes today.
The second goal was basically to hedge my bet. What if we got all the way to Kamchatka and found no organic compounds? That would be embarrassing. For this reason I brought along a mixture of compounds similar to those we thought might have been available four billion years ago to kick-start life: four amino acids, a fatty acid, phosphate, glycerol, and the four bases of nucleic acid. We knew that under laboratory conditions, these components can react to produce more-complex compounds related to the molecular structures and functions characteristic of life. I proposed to add these to a volcanic pool to see what would happen. Most of my colleagues believe that this kind of experiment is a bit silly because the conditions are so uncontrolled, but I think of it as a reality check. We can get interesting reactions to work in a laboratory, but what if we are overlooking something that becomes apparent only when we try to simulate those reactions in a natural environment?