Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC San Diego

UC San Diego Previously Published Works bannerUC San Diego

Exposed Areas Above Sea Level on Earth >3.5 Gyr Ago: Implications for Prebiotic and Primitive Biotic Chemistry


How life began on Earth is still largely shrouded in mystery. One of the central ideas for various origins of life scenarios is Darwin's "warm little pond". In these small bodies of water, simple prebiotic compounds such as amino acids, nucleobases, and so on, were produced from reagents such as hydrogen cyanide and aldehydes/ketones. These simple prebiotic compounds underwent further reactions, producing more complex molecules. The process of chemical evolution would have produced increasingly complex molecules, eventually yielding a molecule with the properties of information storage and replication prone to random mutations, the hallmark of both the origin of life and evolution. However, there is one problematic issue with this scenario: On the Earth >3.5 Gyr ago there would have likely been no exposed continental crust above sea level. The only land areas that protruded out of the oceans would have been associated with hotspot volcanic islands, such as the Hawaiian island chain today. On these long-lived islands, in association with reduced gas-rich eruptions accompanied by intense volcanic lightning, prebiotic reagents would have been produced that accumulated in warm or cool little ponds and lakes on the volcano flanks. During seasonal wet⁻dry cycles, molecules with increasing complexity could have been produced. These islands would have thus been the most likely places for chemical evolution and the processes associated with the origin of life. The islands would eventually be eroded away and their chemical evolution products would have been released into the oceans where Darwinian evolution ultimately produced the biochemistry associated with all life on Earth today.

Many UC-authored scholarly publications are freely available on this site because of the UC's open access policies. Let us know how this access is important for you.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View