A popular, as well as scientifically rigorous, scenario for the origin of life on Earth involves the production of organic molecules by interaction of lightning (or other forms of energy) with a chemically reducing atmosphere in the early history of Earth. Experiments since the 1950's have convincingly demonstrated that the yield of organic molecules is high when the atmosphere contains molecular hydrogen, methane, ammonia, and water vapor. Additional work has also shown that such a highly reducing atmosphere might not, however, have been sufficiently long-lived in the presence of intense solar ultraviolet radiation for life to have formed from it. One way of maintaining such an atmosphere would be to have a continual replenishment of the reduced gases by prolonged volcanic outgassing from a reducing of Earth's interior. The length of time that this replenishment might need to continue is in part constrained by the flux of asteroids onto the Earth's surface containing sufficient energy to destroy most, if not all, life that had developed up to that point in time. If a reducing atmosphere is a key ingredient for the origin of life on Earth, the time of the last environmental sterilization due to large impacts would be an important constraint. In a deep marine setting (e.g., hydrothermal vent), the last global sterilization might have occurred at 4200-4000 Ma. On the Earth's surface, the last global sterilization event might have occurred at 4000-3700 Ma. If these are meaningful constraints, how likely is it that a reducing atmosphere could have survived on the Earth until about 3800 Ma ago? Due to the importance of replenishing this atmosphere with reducing components by volcanic outgassing from the mantle, geochemical information on the history of the mantle's oxidation state would be useful for addressing this question. Geochemical and experimental data discussed in this abstract suggest that extrusive mafic volcanics derived from the upper mantle have had oxidation states near the fayalite-magnetite quartz buffer throughout the last 3800 Ma. At magmatic temperatures, the gases released from volcanoes having this oxidation state would have been, as they are today, composed dominantly of carbon dioxide and water vapor, and would not contain the ingredients for maintaining a reducing atmosphere. Consequently, geochemical data do not favor the survival of a reducing atmosphere until about 3800 Ma. Alternative venues and pathways for the origin of life need to be investigated (e.g., hydrothermal vents along oceanic ridges).
Lunar and Planetary Inst., Twenty-fourth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Part 1: A-F; p 395-396