'Chemical gardens' on the seafloor can power a lightbulb

'Chemical gardens' provided power to Earth's first lifeforms

The bottom of the ocean isn't as lifeless as you probably imagine. It's packed with all kinds of strange beasts - including one that could be as old as life itself. Now, we've harnessed the power of that life to, er, light a lightbulb.

Many experts believe that the first cell-like organisms on Earth grew in the 'chimneys' that form around warm water vents on the seafloor. These chimneys, which some refer to as "chemical gardens", are made up of different types of minerals, and are full of microscopic pores that resemble cellular structures critical to life processes.

One of those life processes is the transfer of electrons for energy, which gives every form of life an electric field. Researchers have previously detected electric fields in deep-sea vents in Japan's Okinawa Trough, but now they've been measured in the lab by a group led by Laurie Barge at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Alien Life

Four of these "chemical gardens", submerged in fluids rich in iron, were hooked up to an LED, and the energy produced was enough to illuminate it, suggesting that these underwater structures were capable of giving an electrical boost to the very first forms of life.

It's not implausible that similar vents, and therefore perhaps alien life, exist on other oceanic worlds in the solar system.

But that's just one of the puzzles surrounding where life came from. Many more are yet to be solved - including how DNA may have assembled from scratch. In the meantime, maybe we can hook up a few more of those chemical gardens to power some undersea colonies. How about it, Nasa?

The findings were published in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.