Lightning: Life's Secret Ingredient?


Dr. Frankenstein, sporting some killer sideburns, attends to his monstrous creation. Yep, all it needs is a little lightning. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dr. Frankenstein, if you're reading this, you have reason to feel a little vindicated. While the modern scientific community may laugh at your use of harnessed lightning bolts to animate a stitched-up monster, they're at least admitting that lightning may have played a vital role in the evolution of life on Earth.

Granted, all this isn't going to keep any rioting villagers away from your castle (and good luck talking down your own monstrous creation with the data), but a recent New Scientist article highlights some interesting findings from the University of Arizona.

It breaks down like this: When lighting strikes sand, it can fuse it into a glassy substance called a fulgurite. The Arizona researchers examined some fulgurites and found that lighting fries phosphorus into phosphite -- a less common, partially oxidized from of phosphate. In this form, it's also more digestible by many microbes.

Today, most of the Earth's phosphites come from rusting steel, but obviously that only came about with human technological advances. Travel back into the depths of prehistory and you might find early, microscopic life forms depending on lighting strikes to give them the ingredients they needed to form their RNA and DNA.

So how's that for a little Promethean fire?

Sing the body electric at HowStuffWorks.com: How Electricity Works How Human Experimentation Works How Lightning Works How Weather Works Top 5 Mad Geniuses


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.