Lightning may have sparked life on Earth

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Those who watched Sweet Home Alabama (Doce Lar, 2002), must remember how the protagonist of the film unearthed, from the sand reached by rays, beautiful glass sculptures. These shapes (in fact, quartz sand fused by lightning energy) are called fulgurites, and those formed by electrical discharges billions of years ago may be the key to explaining how life, after all, was formed on the planet.

Sand flares are quite different from those formed on earth, and it was one of those that planetary scientist Benjamin Hess, then a student of geology, was asked to examine by a family from Glen Ellyn, Illinois. They claimed that a meteorite had fallen in their backyard – in fact, the weird rock clinging to the charred earth was the product of the melting of soil components.

“Most of the fulgurites studied in the past were found on beaches or deserts, because it is very easy to see a glass structure coming out of the sand, while those on earth are covered with debris or vegetation. Illionois’ had a thick tree-root structure that stretched for about half a meter, ”Hess told Smithsonian Magazine.

Microscope

The year was 2016; Hess (now at Yale University) continued to study the glassy cluster in Illinois and discovered, inside, phosphorus, essential for the emergence of DNA and RNA, molecules that carry the information necessary for the formation and continuation of life as we know it.

The discovery came when the planetary scientist was at the University of Leeds, England; along with two researchers at the institution – geochemist Jason Harvey and structural geologist Sandra Piazolo -, Hess used scanning electron microscopy to examine samples of the fulgurite. The group found tiny dark spots in the structure, later identified as schreibersite.

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