Iron has been key for life on earth. What about on other planets?

Sun over Earth. (Image by NASA, Flickr).

Scientists at the University of Oxford have uncovered the likely mechanisms by which iron influenced the development of complex life forms, which can also be used to understand how likely advanced life forms might be on other planets.

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the experts explain that their research is based on the known importance of iron in the formation of the planet earth.

“The initial amount of iron in earth’s rocks is ‘set’ by the conditions of planetary accretion, during which the earth’s metallic core segregated from its rocky mantle,” Jon Wade, co-author of the study and associate professor of planetary materials, said in a media statement. “Too little iron in the rocky portion of the planet, like the planet Mercury, and life is unlikely. Too much, like Mars, and water may be difficult to keep on the surface for times relevant to the evolution of complex life.”

Wade explained that initially, iron conditions on earth would have been optimal to ensure surface retention of water. Iron would have also been soluble in seawater, making it easily available to give simple life forms a jumpstart in development. However, oxygen levels on earth began to rise approximately 2.4 billion years ago and this phenomenon created a reaction with iron, which led to it becoming insoluble. Gigatons of iron dropped out of seawater, where it was much less available to developing life forms.

“Life had to find new ways to obtain the iron it needs,” co-author Hal Drakesmith said. “For example, infection, symbiosis and multicellularity are behaviours that enable life to more efficiently capture and utilize this scarce but vital nutrient. Adopting such characteristics would have propelled early life forms to become ever more complex, on the way to evolving into what we see around us today.”

Drakesmith pointed out that the need for iron as a driver for evolution, and consequent development of a complex organism capable of acquiring poorly available iron, may be rare or random occurrences. This has implications for how likely complex life forms might be on other planets.

“It is not known how common intelligent life is in the Universe,” Drakesmith said. “Our concepts imply that the conditions to support the initiation of simple life-forms are not enough to also ensure subsequent evolution of complex life-forms. Further selection by severe environmental changes may be needed—for example, how life on earth needed to find a new way to access iron. Such temporal changes at planetary scale may be rare, or random, meaning that the likelihood of intelligent life may also be low.”

In his view, however, knowing now about how important iron is in the development of life may aid in the quest of looking for suitable planets that could develop life forms. He and his colleagues believe that by assessing the amount of iron in the mantle of exo-planets, it may now be possible to narrow the search.