Work aboard E/V Nautilus and at the Inner Space Center in 2018 may assist in the search for extraterrestrial life, as exploration of iron-rich hydrothermal vent systems on Lō‘ihi Seamount (Figure 1) informs the design of future science-focused missions across our solar system. From August 21 to September 12, 2018, this research program was conducted by the SUBSEA (Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog) team, which is supported by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research. Our mission comprises three research elements: science, operations, and technology. Both natural and social sciences anchor the SUBSEA program, providing the basis for the operations and technology domains to design and implement their studies and supporting capabilities.
The oceanic crust near mid-ocean ridge spreading centers is a rich source of reducing chemistries and biologically relevant energy sources. It is here that countless microbial metabolic strategies crowd the hydrothermal emissions billowing into the sea, having reacted with the mantle-derived rock deep within. The relative energetic payoff of disparate strategies—a function of electron donor/acceptor availability—changes as a function of host rock composition, temperature, and water-to-rock ratio. This project has constructed chemical maps of these subsurface environments to all realistic extents of these variables, depicting how subtle changes in each generates changes in solute flux and energetic payoffs.
Thermodynamic modelling of organic synthesis has largely been focused on deep-sea hydrothermal systems. When seawater mixes with hydrothermal fluids, redox gradients are established that serve as potential energy sources for the formation of organic compounds and biomolecules from inorganic starting materials. This energetic drive, which varies substantially depending on the type of host rock, is present and available both for abiotic (outside the cell) and biotic (inside the cell) processes. Here, we review and interpret a library of theoretical studies that target organic synthesis energetics. The biogeochemical scenarios evaluated include those in present-day hydrothermal systems and in putative early Earth environments. It is consistently and repeatedly shown in these studies that the formation of relatively simple organic compounds and biomolecules can be energy-yielding (exergonic) at conditions that occur in hydrothermal systems. Expanding on our ability to calculate biomass synthesis energetics, we also present here a new approach for estimating the energetics of polymerization reactions, specifically those associated with polypeptide formation from the requisite amino acids.