Intense light tests show a method used by cooks created life on Earth

The UK’s synchrotron, which peers into atomic structures, reveals a striking 'chemical fingerprint' similarity between a culinary reaction and global seabed sediments.
Sade Agard
Underwater view of sun ray stock photo
Underwater view of sun ray


A fascinating discovery in the realm of culinary chemistry has unveiled its significant role not only in our palates but in shaping Earth's climate and fostering the emergence of complex life forms. 

According to a study published in Nature on August 2, the Maillard reaction, known for creating the delightful aromas and flavors of well-cooked dishes, may have played a vital role in creating the conditions for complex life forms to emerge and thrive on Earth.

What is the Maillard reaction?

Named after the French scientist who uncovered it, the Maillard reaction transforms small organic carbon molecules into larger polymers. In the kitchen, this process is celebrated for creating delectable flavors from sugars. 

However, Professor Caroline Peacock at the University of Leeds and her team suggest that its effects extend far beyond the kitchen, impacting the very conditions necessary for life to flourish on Earth.

Organic carbon in our oceans is predominantly sourced from microscopic living organisms. When these organisms die, they sink to the ocean floor, where bacteria consume them. 

This decomposition process consumes oxygen and releases carbon dioxide into the ocean, eventually reaching the atmosphere. Enter the Maillard reaction, which converts these organic carbon molecules into larger, more resistant forms for up to millions of years. 

These larger molecules resist microbial breakdown, leading to their long-term storage in sediment, a phenomenon the scientists term the "preservation of organic carbon."

This preservation of organic carbon on the ocean floor carries profound implications. By limiting carbon dioxide release and promoting oxygen storage, the Maillard reaction helped stabilize Earth's atmospheric conditions. 

It played a crucial role in tempering the warming of our planet's land surface over the past 400 million years, keeping variations to an average of around five degrees Celsius.

The researchers' experiments revealed that the Maillard reaction's pace significantly accelerates when essential elements like iron and manganese, commonly found in seawater, are present. 

This discovery challenges the notion that the process is too slow to impact Earth's conditions, as previously thought, explained first author Dr. Oliver Moore in a press release

To validate their theory, the scientists examined the interaction of simple organic compounds with various forms of iron and manganese in a laboratory setting. 

Revealing atomic structures

Their analyses, utilizing the UK's synchrotron—an instrument generating intense light energy to unveil atomic structures—revealed a noteworthy similarity, or "chemical fingerprint," between laboratory samples undergoing the Maillard reaction and sediment samples from seabed locations worldwide.

"Our advanced I08-SXM instrumentation with its high stability, energy, and optical resolution was developed and optimized to help probe carbon chemistry and reactions that take place in environmental systems," said Dr. Burkhard Kaulich, principal beamline scientist of the device at Diamond Light Source.

"We are very proud to have been able to contribute to a better understanding of the fundamental chemical processes involved in the creation of complex life forms and climate on Earth."   

This newfound insight not only sheds light on Earth's ancient processes but also offers a fresh perspective on tackling modern-day climate change. 

The lessons learned from these geochemical interactions could inform innovative approaches for mitigating contemporary climate challenges, contributing to the development of carbon capture technologies and fostering a more sustainable future.

The complete study was published in Nature on August 2.

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