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Role of Meteorite Impacts in the Origin of Life

Osinski, G. R. and Cockell, C. S. and Pontefract, A. and Sapers, H. M. (2020) Role of Meteorite Impacts in the Origin of Life. Astrobiology, 20 (9). pp. 1121-1149. ISSN 1531-1074.

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The conditions, timing, and setting for the origin of life on Earth and whether life exists elsewhere in our solar system and beyond represent some of the most fundamental scientific questions of our time. Although the bombardment of planets and satellites by asteroids and comets has long been viewed as a destructive process that would have presented a barrier to the emergence of life and frustrated or extinguished life, we provide a comprehensive synthesis of data and observations on the beneficial role of impacts in a wide range of prebiotic and biological processes. In the context of previously proposed environments for the origin of life on Earth, we discuss how meteorite impacts can generate both subaerial and submarine hydrothermal vents, abundant hydrothermal–sedimentary settings, and impact analogues for volcanic pumice rafts and splash pools. Impact events can also deliver and/or generate many of the necessary chemical ingredients for life and catalytic substrates such as clays as well. The role that impact cratering plays in fracturing planetary crusts and its effects on deep subsurface habitats for life are also discussed. In summary, we propose that meteorite impact events are a fundamental geobiological process in planetary evolution that played an important role in the origin of life on Earth. We conclude with the recommendation that impact craters should be considered prime sites in the search for evidence of past life on Mars. Furthermore, unlike other geological processes such as volcanism or plate tectonics, impact cratering is ubiquitous on planetary bodies throughout the Universe and is independent of size, composition, and distance from the host star. Impact events thus provide a mechanism with the potential to generate habitable planets, moons, and asteroids throughout the Solar System and beyond.

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Additional Information:© 2020 G.R. Osinski et al.; Published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. This Open Access article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited. Submitted 28 November 2019; Accepted 24 June 2020; Online Ahead of Print: September 1, 2020. This review would not have been possible without funding from various organizations over the past almost 20 years. G.R.O. acknowledges funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Space Agency, and MDA Maxar, for his Industrial Research Chair in Earth and Space Exploration. The NSERC Discovery Grant and Northern Supplement programs are also gratefully acknowledged. Support from the Polar Continental Shelf Program and Northern Scientific Training program was critical in supporting fieldwork at the Haughton and other impact structures that forms a major component of this research. C.S.C. was funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Grant (No. ST/R000875/1). We thank Norman Sleep and an anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments and suggestions on this manuscript.
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)UNSPECIFIED
Canadian Space Agency (CSA)UNSPECIFIED
Maxar TechnologiesUNSPECIFIED
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)ST/R000875/1
Subject Keywords:Origin of life; Impact craters; Hadean environment; Hydrothermal systems; Crater lakes; Lithophytic habitats; Geobiology
Issue or Number:9
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20200909-122129902
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Official Citation:The Role of Meteorite Impacts in the Origin of Life. G.R. Osinski, C.S. Cockell, A. Pontefract, and H.M. Sapers. Astrobiology 2020 20:9, 1121-1149; doi: 10.1089/ast.2019.2203
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:105294
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:09 Sep 2020 19:32
Last Modified:16 Sep 2020 21:54

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