Hydrogen peroxide was the vital ingredient in rock pores around underwater heat vents that set in train a sequence of chemical reactions that led to the first forms of life, said lead researcher Rowena Ball, Associate Professor at the Australian National University.
"The origin of life is one of the hardest problems in all of science, but it is also one of the most important," Ball said.
The results, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, could provide new and valuable guidelines in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The research team made a model using hydrogen peroxide and porous rock that simulated the dynamic, messy environment that hosted the origin of life.
"Hydrogen peroxide played multiple roles in the emergence of living systems, and this study investigated how it ensured the randomly fluctuating temperatures and pH levels necessary to energise the production of a chemical world that made life on Earth possible," Ball said.
"Our simulations reveal the importance of long rock pores or lengthy, interconnected porous structures in enabling the creation of long, large molecules," she added.
The research advances upon previous studies by modelling the flow of reactive species through porous rock rather than through a single pore.
The high temperature fluctuations must not rise too high or occur too often, Ball said.
"The system needs to spend enough time at higher temperatures to carry out essential synthetic reactions, but not so much that the reactants are totally consumed or destroyed. We call this the 'Goldilocks' distribution," she said.
"This effectively gives us the 'fundamental equation of life'. It says that for life to begin and persist, the habitat must exhibit a specific range of temperature fluctuations," Ball said.