Hypothesis about the origin of the first cell > chemistry > organic chemistry > doi: 10.20944/preprints202201.0364.v1

Preprint: Hypothesis


Storage of biochemical information as the start of life: A hypothetical

model for the development of the first cell

Ulrich Schreiber


Abstract: The storage of biochemical information, which is a prerequisite for the development of the first cell, is an unsolved problem affecting all concepts of the origin of life. However, if the protected environment in the continental crust is taken into account, completely new possibilities emerge for identifying processes that may have been crucial for the formation of the first cell. Under this background, we can hypothesize that, before cellular life began, a self-sustaining cycle of molecular reaction steps with information storage in RNA existed outside of a cell. This cycle was made possible in an open system bound to gas-permeable tectonic fracture zones with a high proportion of CO2 and N2. The formation of peptides and vesicles in supercritical CO2 and the chemical evolution of peptides have already been proven for the upper continental crust. Further considerations include the interactions of vesicles with catalytic peptides and the emergence of proto-tRNA. In combination with the formation of proto-tRNA synthetases, which consist of only two amino acid species and associated proto-tRNAs, the first RNA as an information storage system could have been formed with the information of proto-enzymes.


Keywords: origin of life; hydrothermal biochemistry, information storage, continental crust model, supercritical fluids, open system, binary proto-synthetase



Ein Modell über die Entstehung der ersten Zelle (Spektrum der Wissenschaft 07/2020)  Von  Ulrich C. Schreiber und Christian Mayer

A model of the origin of the first cell (Spektrum der Wissenschaft 07/2020) By Ulrich C. Schreiber and Christian Mayer

The first cell

Non-fiction book about the origin of life now also in English: The First Cell - The Mystery Surrounding the Beginning of Life

(Englische Version von  `Das Geheimnis um die erste Zelle´ – mit einer Ergänzung über die Definition des Lebens zwischen Ordnung und Komplexität von Christian Mayer)

Non-fiction book about the origin of life by Ulrich C. Schreiber and Christian Mayer


This book introduces a fresh perspective on the conditions for the genesis of the first cell. An important possible environment of the prehistoric Earth has long been overlooked as a host to the perfect biochemical conditions for this process. The first complexes of continental crust on the early Earth must have already contained systems of interconnected cracks and cavities, which were filled with volatiles like water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. This book offers insights into how these conditions may have provided the ideal physical and chemical setting for the formation of protocells and early stages of life.

The authors support their hypothesis with a number of astonishing findings from laboratory experiments focusing on a variety of organic compounds, and on the formation of key cellular ingredients and of primitive cell-like structures. Moreover, they discuss the principles of prebiotic evolution regarding the aspects of order and complexity. Guiding readers through various stages of hypotheses and re-created evolutionary processes, the book is enriched with personal remarks and experiences throughout, reflecting the authors' personal quest to solve the mystery surrounding the first cell.

From simple molecules to the world of LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) EANA – Poster contribution

At the joint conference of German and European astrobiology (DAbG, EANA resp., 24.- 28. Sept. 2018), the pathway for a development of a cell from simple organic molecular building blocks was presented for the first time under realistic conditions. The poster outlines six stages of development which can be shown on fracture zones of the continental crust. The fractures are filled with fluids and gases. The focus is the depth of 700 to 1000 meters, where in CO2/N2 mofettes the transition from supercritical to subcritical gases takes place. Due to pressure fluctuations caused by earth tides or by eruptions of cold water geysers the depth of phase transition varies.

Dag Posterbild2



Click for Poster View

Poster Explanations

Alternative concept for final storage of radioactive waste

An alternative concept for final storage of high-level radioactive waste



Based on the experiences gained in the project “development of an implementation concept to use former coal mines for underground pumped storage”, a new approach in regard to an alternative final storage system for high-level radioactive waste was developed by geologists of the Faculty of Biology of the University of Duisburg-Essen.

In Germany, research activities for a final storage of high-level radioactive waste are focused on Permian saline layers such as salt domes structures in the North-German Basin. Until now, flat saline layers in homogenous salt bodies seemed not to be suitable because of their depth and low height.

Alternatively, horizontal layers of clay and salt offer a good sealing against gaseous and aqueous fluids migrating from the deeper underground towards the surface.

Based on this, it is suggested to investigate sites beneath saline layers with sufficient height as a location for final storage of high-level radioactive waste. For such kind of storage the following geologic pre-conditions have to be considered:

  1. Sufficient thickness of salt layers (200 m height, stratiform composition and horizontal layering),
  2. depth of the saline layers up to 1000 m maximum,
  3. metamorphic/granitic bedrock providing possibilities for construction of stable caverns,
  4. no evidence of critical gas (CH4/CO2) concentration accumulating in future final storage,
  5. no or low seismic activity in the region,
  6. sufficient distance to large fault zones, and
  7. large distance to sub-recent volcanic fields.

Additionally, following spatial planning aspects have be taken into account

  1. low population density or rural area
  2. outside of protected areas
  3. transport connections to railways

On this basis, areas such as the South of Lower Saxony, the North of Hesse and Franken or the Thuringian Basin might be suitable. According to first analyses of drilling data and geologic maps available, the Thuringian Basin meets most of the pre-conditions, especially in the surrounding areas of the cities of Nordhausen, Mühlhausen and Stadtilm.

The suggested, alternative concept for a final storage is an addition to the models discussed by the AkEnd (2002). In Germany, a many-fold composition of bedrock and its covering layers provide investigation possibilities to implement such an alternative final storage system.


Colloquium „Heidelberg Initiative for the Origin of Life“ (HIFOL)

Wednesday, 17. Juni, 17.15 Uhr; Auditorium INF 252 – Neuenheimer Feld, University of Heidelberg


  • Ulrich Schreiber (University Duisburg-Essen): Origin of Life in Tectonic Fault Zones of the Earth's Crust
  • Christian Mayer (University Duisburg-Essen): Periodic Vesicle Formation in Tectonic Fault Zones: An Ideal Scenario for Molecular Evolution

see also:

HIFOL Web site;

Origin of Life – Press release Life Originated in the Earth’s Crust

This at least is what the geologist Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schreiber and the physico-chemist Prof. Dr. Christian Mayer of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany are convinced of. After having presented their theory and conclusive experimental findings on a Gordon conference in Galveston (Texas) and a conference of astrobiology in Nara (Japan), they now have submitted the results to the journal `Origin of Life and the Evolution of Biospheres´ for publication.

„It is the first model on the origin of life which includes a complete process leading from inorganic chemistry to a protocell where the problems of molecule formation, local concentration, driving force and membrane formation are being solved simultaneously” Prof. Mayer from the faculty of Chemistry says.

Further Information: Origin of Life

High-pressure phase equilibria apparatus

New CO2 high pressure system in operation


In April 2014, the newly acquired high-pressure phase equilibria apparatus (SITEC -Sieber Engineering AG, Switzerland) was put into operation. With a maximum operating pressure of 1000 bar and a maximum temperature of 200 °C, the conditions of an open water column in the upper crust of up to 10 kilometers can be modelled. CO2 that turns into the supercritical state (scCO2 - supercritical CO2) at 73.8 bar and 31 °C is of special interest. Supercritical CO2 possesses properties of both, the liquid and the gaseous phase. It is highly mobile, has a lower density than the liquid and dissolves very well organic compounds (e.g., caffeine from coffee beans).

The plant is used for reactions, as they can be executed under prebiotic conditions in the upper continental crust following the models for the origin of life. These include the formation of vesicles, the coupling of amino acids to long peptide chains (and ultimately enzymes) and the formation of nucleotides as components of DNA and RNA.

The apparatus includes a reaction chamber of 36/50 ml as an observation cell, a cold light source and a colour camera system to represent the phase states on a monitor. Pressure generation of commercial CO2 is done by hand by means of a very fine adjustable hand screw press. An additional gas can also be transferred via the second connection into the cell. Sampling is carried out under pressure. Both the liquid and the supercritical phase can be sampled separately.


Two invited talks "Origin of Life" – Gordon Research Conference

From 12. to 17. Jan. 2014  the Gordon Research Conference "Origin of Life" ( took place in Galvestone/Texas. Christian Mayer (Physical Chemistry) and Ulrich Schreiber (Geology) presented the developed model of the origin of life along deep reaching tectonic faults of the early crust.

Basalt 2013 - 24.- 28.04.13 Görlitz

EGU2013 & Basalt 2013

Why does the Size of the Laacher See Magma Chamber and its Caldera Size not go together? – New Findings with regard to Active Tectonics in the East Eifel Volcanic Field

At the EGU2013 and the Basalt2013 we presented our new findings of the tectonically active Neuwied Basin. Our results of gas-monitoring in mineral springs and mofettes show a split of the East Eifel volcanic field into two parts. Research on analyses of tectonics has revealed a 105° trending strike-slip fault („Laacher See Strike-slip Fault“) cutting the South of Laacher See and through the mofette field in the river Lahn. Regional strike-slip faults in combination with block rotation and uplift and a tectonic movement rates of 1 mm/year could have provided the voids for the magma chambers of the Wehrer Kessel and the Laacher See Caldera. Analogue models show that regional strike-slip regimes (including Riedel shears, chamber-localised graben fault, and a partial Y-shear) play a decisive role for caldera formation. Our research findings suggest that due to the slow movement rates of active tectonic faults, an estimated 18 km3 magma chamber within the brittle fracture section of the earth’s crust beneath the Laacher See cannot be confirmed yet. Additionally, the size of the Laacher See caldera with a volume of approx. 0.5 km³ (with regard to the pre-eruptive surface) is not compatible with the postulated eruption volume of more than 6.3 km³ magma and country rock. Therefore, an order of magnitude smaller magma chamber stretched over a longer vertical crustal section can help to better match the given tectonic movement rates and the size of the caldera.

See the poster:

Abstract: (Klick on "Abstract and excursion guide volume")

EGU2013 – 07.-12.04.13 Vienna

EGU2013 - Press Conference

Red wood ants bioanomalies prior to earthquakes are an important step towards the understanding of GeoBio processes but cannot predict earthquakes

13.04.2013 At the EGU2013 press conference on April 11, 2013 we reported our early findings of red wood ant (RWA) bioanomalies (suppression of the nocturnal rest phase and daily activity, continuing of the standard daily routine not before the next day) that have been recorded and analysed for several earthquakes with magnitudes of up to about 3.

The specific mechanisms for how and why they show such reactions need to be researched in in situ experiments and in close cooperation with biologists. An open question is whether RWA would react in the same way on earthquakes with higher magnitudes (M > 4), which have not occurred during our period of observation. This will be one topic of future research.

Although the investigation and results presented are promising, they are only a first step towards a completely new research complex. Long-term studies have to show whether confounding factors and climatic influences can clearly be distinguished. However, our early results suggest that it makes sense to consolidate and extend the research to determine a pattern for exceptional activity situations.

As clarified on the press conference, these studies are not provided for earthquake prediction, but are an important step towards the understanding of geobiological processes.

see also:

EGU2013 – 07.-12.04.13 Vienna

EGU2013 - Poster Presentation

Presentation of first findings of complex organic compounds in fluid inclusions of archaic quartz minerals

First analyses results of hydrothermal quartz minerals from the region north of Murchison, Australia, were presented at the EGU2013 conference in Vienna. They are from the Archaic Yilgarn craton and have different, partly unknown age. Samples from tectonic quartz veins and impact generated quartz of the Shoemaker crater revealed no unusual results, whereas the analysis of debris of quartz resulted from a conglomerate with a minimum age of 2.7 billion years, showed an amazing variety of organic volatile compounds. Possible formation processes are discussed similar to the Fischer/Troptsch-Synthesis, which were introduced by the published hypothetical model for the origin of life in tectonic fault zones in 2012 (Schreiber et al. 2012;

see poster:

see EGU2013-Abstract:


Energy reserves for the Ruhr Coal Basin

€ 1.3 million grants for energy reserve project approved


[23.11.2012] Project partners are research teams of the UDE and the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB), as well as experts of the RAG Deutsche Steinkohle AG, DMT GmbH & Co. and Rhine-Ruhr Institute for Social Science Research and Political Consultancy (RISP).


The Working Group “Geology” is involved with a sub-project on the geological potential and the siting.


The Underground Pumped Storage Power Plants (UPP) is well underway: Preliminary investigations having already approved that mining shafts of the Ruhr areas are basically suitable for an environmentally friendly energy storage. Therefore the Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Consumer Protection of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia supports this project. With that, the feasibility study for the UPP is launched, perhaps a key element to further promote the expansion of renewable energies.

On 23.11.2012,  Udo Paschedag, State Secretary of the the Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Consumer Protection, presented the subsidary note for the study of UPP to a consortium led by University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE).

The total funding for the concept comprises a total of approx. € 1.3 million for a 18 months project duration. With that the first phase of the two-phase project is funded.

Fig.1 Strike-slip faults provided pathways for waters and gases

New Project Origin of Life in Deep-Reaching Tectonic Faults of the first Continents

The worldwide discussion on the origin of life encounters difficulties when it comes to estimate the conditions of the early earth and to define plausible environments for the development of the first complex organic molecules. 

A hypothetical model for the origin of life is proposed which will be used to design crucial experiments for the model’s verification. Because all proposed processes could still occur in tectonic faults at the present time, it may be possible to detect and analyse the formation of prebiotic molecules in order to assess the validity of the proposed hypothesis.


see also poster

Further information: 

Research Project Underground Pumped Storage Power Plants (UPP)

The project is funded by the Mercator Research Center Ruhr, an initiative of the Mercator Foundation and University Alliance Metropole Ruhr.

Production facilities for renewable energies are usually time-dependent on environmental factors such as sun and wind. The generated power is not necessarily available when it is needed by the consumer. Underground pumped storage power plants (UPP) that can store energy until needed, can bridge this time lag.

Therefore, the Department of Geology, works in cooperation with the Institute of Hydraulic Engineering and Water Management, the Department of Geotechnical Engineering and the Institute for Energy Systems and Energy Economics at the Ruhr University of Bochum on a Study on underground pumped storage power plants (UPP).



Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schreiber

Chair of Geology

S05 T05 F18
Universitätsstraße 5
45141 Essen



Stephanie Rabe
T03 R01 D51
Tel.: 0201 183-3101
Fax: 0201 183-4598