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Nature. 1998 Sep 24;395(6700):365-7.

Abiotic nitrogen reduction on the early Earth.

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Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington, DC 20015-1305, USA.


The production of organic precursors to life depends critically on the form of the reactants. In particular, an environment dominated by N2 is far less efficient in synthesizing nitrogen-bearing organics than a reducing environment rich in ammonia. Relatively reducing lithospheric conditions on the early Earth have been presumed to favour the generation of an ammonia-rich atmosphere, but this hypothesis has not been studied experimentally. Here we demonstrate mineral-catalysed reduction of N2, NO2- and NO3- to ammonia at temperatures between 300 and 800 degrees C and pressures of 0.1-0.4 GPa-conditions typical of crustal and oceanic hydrothermal systems. We also show that only N2 is stable above 800 degrees C, thus precluding significant atmospheric ammonia formation during hot accretion. We conclude that mineral-catalysed N2 reduction might have provided a significant source of ammonia to the Hadean ocean. These results also suggest that, whereas nitrogen in the Earth's early atmosphere was present predominantly as N2, exchange with oceanic, hydrothermally derived ammonia could have provided a significant amount of the atmospheric ammonia necessary to resolve the early-faint-Sun paradox.

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