Fire and Brimstone: Why Earth Isn't Like Venus
Both planets have abundant sulfur, but Earth life has a way of cycling it for good.
The recent evidence for active volcanism on Venus (Science Magazine, Science Daily) has excited planetary scientists who long suspected it. Eight years ago, spikes in sulfur dioxide measurements provided indirect evidence; now, hot spots detected by the ESA’s Venus Express orbiter seem to confirm the presence of lava lakes on the surface (New Scientist). Sulfur has a deathly presence at our hellish twin planet. In the atmosphere, it forms droplets of sulfuric acid (H2SO4), adding insult to the injury of temperatures approaching 900° F.
Earth has plenty of sulfur as well. In fact, the core may be “brimming with brimstone” (Science Magazine) if that explains why it is lighter than expected. The Biblical references were not unnoticed by Live Science:
Biblical views of the center of the Earth as a hellish pit raging with fire and brimstone have some support from new research. Scientists have found that the vast majority of brimstone — reverently referred to in biblical times as “burning stone,” but now known more commonly as sulfur — dwells deep in the Earth’s core.
“In a way, we can also say that we have life imitating art,” study lead author Paul Savage, a research scientist in the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.”For millennia, tales have been told of the underworld being awash with fire and brimstone. Now at least, we can be sure of the brimstone.”
Writer Elizabeth Goldbaum provided no Scripture references that claim hell is at the center of the earth, but that’s beside the point. What matters is that Earth’s sulfur economy is radically different from that on Venus.
We know of Earth’s water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and oxygen cycle. There’s also a sulfur cycle. Science Daily reports that 90% of Earth’s sulfur may be locked up in the core, but the element plays a prominent role in life on the surface, too. Our own bodies rely on sulfur, according to Healthy.net; it is found in hair, nails, and skin, and in every cell:
Sulfur is present in four amino acids: methionine, an essential amino acid; the nonessential cystine and cysteine, which can be made from methionine; and taurine, which is not part of body tissues but does help produce bile acid for digestion. Sulfur is also present in two B vitamins, thiamine and biotin; interestingly, thiamine is important to skin and biotin to hair. Sulfur is also available as various sulfates or sulfides. But overall, sulfur is most important as part of protein.
Years ago, Benton C. Clark at NASA speculated that sulfur could be a “fountainhead of life” that could provide a biomarker for the search for life on other planets. Everyone knows the importance of water, but he said, “it will be my theme that sulfur compounds may be of equivalent rank and may well permit the proliferation of life in certain environments not otherwise considered hospitable.”
Venus shows, however, that sulfur compounds alone, whether sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, or hydrogen sulfide (the “rotten egg gas” at hot springs) are not necessarily related to life, and can even be toxic. What makes the difference on Earth? The sulfur is made available by microbes in a form that can be utilized by cells.
The Life Connection
In “Sourcing the smell of the seaside,” Nicholas S. Wigginton in Science Magazine summed up new research in a new paper in Science. “Marine phytoplankton plays a critical role in the global sulfur cycle,” Wigginton says, particularly the algae that contain an enzyme that produces dimethyl sulfide (DMS), an aromatic compound that gives some of that seaside aroma to the beach. DMS forms condensation nuclei for clouds, which release more sulfur from the land as rain falls. It’s remarkable to ponder how this one enzyme has global effects:
The presence of this gene in other globally distributed phytoplankton and corals suggests that it may serve as a reliable indicator of DMS production across diverse phyla. Because DMS gets oxidized to sulfur aerosols, which act as cloud condensation nuclei, this enzyme is a key global biogeochemical catalyst.
“Biogeochemical” — that links biology to geology to global chemistry. Andrew Johnston, in his commentary on the paper in Science, provides more detail about the cycle. DMS is cleaved from dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) by an abundant marine alga named Emiliania huxleyi. That puts this beautiful little coccolithophore microbe, covered with decorative plates, as a key player in the global sulfur cycle. Johnston writes,
DMSP is one of the most important and abundant organic molecules in the world, with a billion metric tons made and turned over every year. A signature molecule for life at sea, it is produced by marine macroalgae as well as by single-cell phytoplankton species, such as diatoms, dinoflagellates, and—as in this case—the haptophyte E. huxleyi. It most likely serves to protect organisms to survive osmotic stress, although other functions have been suggested, ranging from defense against grazing to protection against oxidative and other stresses….
The cleavage products are also of interest, particularly the volatile DMS, at least 10 million metric tons of which are released into the atmosphere annually. DMS is a component of the tangy aroma of the seaside and functions as a chemical attractant that guides various marine animals—including some sea birds, invertebrates, and even mammals—toward potential food supplies. Not only does the release of DMS into the atmosphere contribute substantially to the global flux of sulfur from sea to air and back to land via precipitation but also DMS oxidation products act as condensation nuclei, causing water molecules to coalesce, with possible effects on local climate through enhanced cloud formation.
The organism can also synthesize DMSP, as can other organisms like dinoflagellates that are “taxonomically very distant” from it. The biosynthesis of DMSP from sulfur-containing amino acids is a complex 5-step process that only a few organisms can perform (source); it requires “successive action of four different enzymes” (Nature). The spread of this ability across unrelated organisms suggests to Johnston that the gene might have been obtained by “long range horizontal gene transfer” or independent evolution. The capability to cleave DMSP appears also in sea lettuce and other seaweed-like algae. “It is now clear that DMSP lyases exist in both eukaryotes and bacteria,” he notes, “but they must function in different ways, because Alma1 bears no resemblance to any of the known bacterial lyases.” The authors of the original paper say, “it is clear that DMS production by bacteria DMSP lyases has a fundamental role in the oceanic sulfur and carbon cycles” that sustain life on our planet.
So what’s the difference between the fire and brimstone on Venus and the fire and brimstone on Earth? It comes down to information. Genes contain codes that instruct living cells how to take sulfur, convert it into complex forms, break it down into other forms, and keep it cycling through the air, the oceans, and the land. That’s what makes Earth a heaven and not a hell.
So many things like this we take for granted. The sulfur in an egg or steak didn’t just ooze out of the ground. It is the product of a long series of complex enzymes, coded for in genes, that knew how to take a simple element with 16 protons and turn it into useful biomolecules. How did the Earth get by without this information? Evolutionists believe that all this complex organic chemistry had to be invented by chance over millions of years. How did the first life get by without the sulfur cycle and all the other cycles that are intertwined with the biosphere? It’s a complex, networked system where every player benefits and contributes. Take out the DMS, and you don’t get the rain. Take out the enzymes, and you don’t get the DMS.
The thought that life controls the world is amazing. Sulfur from geology gets built up into DMSP in complex creatures that know organic chemistry, taking building blocks through four successive actions of different enzymes. DMSP is then cleaved by other enzymes and released into the atmosphere as DMS which, in turn, forms clouds that rain on the earth and leach more sulfur from the rocks. How did the algae know that sending a gas into the air would bring them more sulfur in the oceans? It’s like a global economy with many different actors contributing to the whole. This is powerful evidence of planning, intention, and design. It takes an element we associate with rotten smells, acid and hellfire, and turns it into a heavenly sweetness. God can do that for our corrupt souls, too, if we repent and trust Him.