Team leader Matthew Pasek, a geology professor at the University of South Florida, said their research suggests during the Hadean and Archean eons -- the first of the four principal eons of the Earth's earliest history -- a heavy bombardment of meteorites provided reactive phosphorus that when released in water could be incorporated into prebiotic molecules.
"Meteorite phosphorus may have been a fuel that provided the energy and phosphorus necessary for the onset of life," Pasek said in a university release Tuesday.
The research team studied Earth core samples from Australia, Zimbabwe, West Virginia, Wyoming and Florida.
"If this meteoritic phosphorus is added to simple organic compounds, it can generate phosphorus biomolecules identical to those seen in life today," Pasek said.
No terrestrial sources of phosphorous could have produced the quantities of phosphite -- a salt formed in a reaction with water scientists believe could have been incorporated into prebiotic molecules -- needed to be dissolved in early Earth oceans that gave rise to life, the researchers said.
However, meteorite phosphite would have been abundant enough to adjust the chemistry of the oceans, they said.