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What's seeping in the Lost City?

The robotic vehicles Hercules and Argus illuminate the Nature Tower, an actively venting carbonate chimney in the Lost City. This is a composite image.

How do you turn a tree trunk into gas for your car? For the most part, our fuel comes from plants and animals that were buried deep in the Earth. After being heated up and squeezed under tons of rock for millions of years, some of the carbon molecules from the plants and animals turn into new products called hydrocarbons. Gas, oil and coal are all hydrocarbons.

But something very different is going on at the "Lost City," a weird collection of rock towers and strange animals discovered deep in the Atlantic Ocean eight years ago. The ocean floor around the Lost City is full of deep cracks that go all the way down into a lower layer of the Earth called the mantle. Giora Proskurowski at the University of Washington and his fellow researchers looked carefully at some of the waters seeping out of these cracks and found lots of hydrocarbons there. These hydrocarbons don't look like the ones that come from living things, though. The scientists think these Lost City hydrocarbons were made in a chemical reaction with carbon leaking out of warm mantle rocks.

The study suggests there might be lots of hydrocarbons all over the ocean floor that don't come from living things. If that's true, maybe the seeping cracks were the world's first nursery billions of years ago. All plants and animals contain carbon, and the researchers say mantle hydrocarbons might have been a good source of building blocks for the first life on Earth.

This study appears in the 1 February issue of the journal Science.