Meteorites tend to be associated with the destruction they can unleash on a planet. But research by graduate student Haley Sapers at the University of Western Ontario is revealing more about their surprising role in helping various organisms blossom, possibly even in the earliest days of life on Earth.
Her work, being completed with the help of a 2010 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize, builds on the theory that microbes can literally eat glass to survive. This in turn has implications for the theory that early life arose from submarine hydrothermal systems—areas of warm water where microbial life could thrive. Recent research suggests that meteorite impacts may have produced energy that fueled hydrothermal systems, providing oases for biological organisms.
Sapers’ research will explore these theories more deeply. She will study samples from the Ries impact crater in Germany, a 15-million year old formation that contains glass altered by a hydrothermal system that formed as a result of the impact. The glass features a “tubular alteration texture.” In other submarine natural glass, this texture is a telltale sign of biological activity.
Sapers will study the chemical, morphological and mineralogical characteristics of the tubular alteration from the Ries Crater glass. This will help to determine if the textures have a biological origin—evidence never before found in an impact crater.
Her work has the potential to greatly increase our understanding of the beneficial effects of meteorite impacts. Not only will this have implications for understanding the early forms of life on Earth, it could also provide insights that help determine the possibility of life on other planets such as Mars.