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Open Access Highly Accessed Review

Reduction of nitrogen compounds in oceanic basement and its implications for HCN formation and abiotic organic synthesis

Nils G Holm* and Anna Neubeck

Author Affiliations

Department of Geology and Geochemistry, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

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Geochemical Transactions 2009, 10:9  doi:10.1186/1467-4866-10-9

Published: 22 October 2009

Abstract

Hydrogen cyanide is an excellent organic reagent and is central to most of the reaction pathways leading to abiotic formation of simple organic compounds containing nitrogen, such as amino acids, purines and pyrimidines. Reduced carbon and nitrogen precursor compounds for the synthesis of HCN may be formed under off-axis hydrothermal conditions in oceanic lithosphere in the presence of native Fe and Ni and are adsorbed on authigenic layer silicates and zeolites. The native metals as well as the molecular hydrogen reducing CO2 to CO/CH4 and NO3-/NO2- to NH3/NH4+ are a result of serpentinization of mafic rocks. Oceanic plates are conveyor belts of reduced carbon and nitrogen compounds from the off-axis hydrothermal environments to the subduction zones, where compaction, dehydration, desiccation and diagenetic reactions affect the organic precursors. CO/CH4 and NH3/NH4+ in fluids distilled out of layer silicates and zeolites in the subducting plate at an early stage of subduction will react upon heating and form HCN, which is then available for further organic reactions to, for instance, carbohydrates, nucleosides or even nucleotides, under alkaline conditions in hydrated mantle rocks of the overriding plate. Convergent margins in the initial phase of subduction must, therefore, be considered the most potent sites for prebiotic reactions on Earth. This means that origin of life processes are, perhaps, only possible on planets where some kind of plate tectonics occur.

Graphical abstract