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Do minerals play any significant role in the creation and evolution of life? For example, which minerals would more likely be favored than others to create life or to be used by life? What are their roles? What are some examples?
Question Date: 2007-11-21
Answer 1:

Good question!

One hypothesis for the origin of life was that life began as a self-replicating form of zeolite clay. I don't think this is the favored hypothesis, but I don't think anybody has disapproved it.

As for what minerals life likes, life on Earth uses carbon as its main structural element and water as its solvent. There is no other element with bonding properties like carbon, so life as we imagine it could not exist without carbon. There are some carbon minerals, but not that many - carbon generally likes to form light, volatile chemicals like hydrocarbons than solid crystals. Because water is life's solvent, it is also difficult to imagine life as we understand it with conditions favorable to water being in a mineral form - it has to be liquid.

Aside from that, life generally uses what elements are available. This means the common stuff - nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulfur. I notice a preference for nonmetals, although life does use metals too in smaller amounts, particularly calcium (another very common element). Heavy, rare elements, particularly those that act chemically similar to more common elements (lead, arsenic) tend to be poisonous - they interact with life's chemistry but not quite like the elements they are supposed to (in this case carbon and nitrogen). I have no doubt that if you made a planet composed of lead and arsenic containing minerals but otherwise suitable for life, any life that evolved on that planet would find a use for these poisons and would come to be unable to live without them. A good example of this in Earth's history is oxygen: oxygen is a deadly poison, until it became common enough in its elemental form to be used, and now most living things on Earth cannot live without it.

Answer 2:

Minerals may have acted as the first templates upon which protein duplication started. This is called the crystal genes origin of life.There is a book by CAIRNS-SMITH called the Seven Clues to Life. That is a nice book.

Answer 3:

I'm not sure about the role of minerals in creating or evolving life,since early life seems to be water-borne rather than occur in solids.(It's hard for even one-celled organisms to spread through a solid!)But some organisms are amazing creators of minerals. For example,calcium carbonate is chalk: a very weak, brittle material. But abalone sea shells are 98% calcium carbonate, and yet they're extremely hard. What's the other 2%? Somehow the abalone is able to make a mineral which is much harder than its building blocks, and it uses that mineral for its own protection in a shell.

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