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Could lightning give rise to life?

Specialists of the Institute of Geology of Komi Research Center of Ural Branch, (Russian Academy of Sciences) and the Institute of Natural Resources, Ecology and Cryology, Siberian Branch (Russian Academy of Sciences) have for the first time described the formation that results from a stroke of lightning into a plant - phytofulgurite.

So far, it has been assumed that specific geological bodies are formed at the strike of lightning only if the lightning hits sedimentary rock or a cliff. However, it has turned out that dry grass sometimes turns into a complicated alloy resembling bitumen under the influence of the lightning. Normally, formation of such substances takes millions of years. This unusual stone contains amino acids typical of living organisms that could be formed only by abiogenous high-temperature synthesis.

Once, in the village of Podvolok in the Chita Region, lightning hit a haycock and burnt it down. This was quite an ordinary event but when the owner raked away the ashes , he noticed a small flat, blue-black, fibrous, glassy piece of unknown substance. Guessing that the find could be of interest, the natives decided to show it to geologists. It has turned out that inhabitants of Podvolok discovered a geological object – phytofulgurite - earlier unknown to science. This substance (close in composition to bitumens or humus) is formed in case of a lightning strike at vegetation. Within an instant of the highest temperature (almost 25 thousand degrees) and pressure, the vegetable biomass underwent such changes, which in less severe conditions last for millions of years.

The sample consisted of conglomerated fibers, staphyline structures, spheres and hollows of a different size, from fractions of a millimeter through several millimeters. Fibrous formations apparently repeated disposition of grass stems. The main elements making part of it are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur, the rest – approximately a third – being oxygen and trace elements. Such composition is typical of natural bitumens or humus.

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It is interesting to note that phytofulgirite contained the quantity of amino acids unprecedented for bitumens. Amino acids are present in any mineral oil and its natural derivatives, however, in this case their content turned out to be higher by a dozen of times. At that, 95 percent of amino acids belonged to left isomers, as it occurs in living organisms. Nevertheless, these amino acids could not be remains of grass – at such temperature all organic matter burns down completely.

The researchers assumed that amino acids in this case were formed abioticly – without participation of life, by high-temperature synthesis. This requires, on top of high temperature, X-radiation and gamma radiation. But these particular conditions do occur in the point of a lightning stroke. The researchers had managed earlier during the experiment to synthesize left amino acids at the laboratory in the course of solid bitumen irradiation. Maybe, this is the way protozoa organic compounds originated which gave rise to the first molecules of living creatures?

Detailed investigation of phytofulgurite (both chemically and under a microscope), has managed to discover traces of multiple processes that take place for example during lava solidification or after meteorite hitting the earth. Many years, even millions of years went into fractions of a second. If so, why not take advantage of this effect in order to observe geosphere history in the laboratory? Or it is possible to find purely practical application for it and to forward human activity waste “to the future” with the help of lightning.

Nadezda Markina | alfa
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