Biological engineers from Cornell University found in simulated ancient seawater, clay formed a hydrogel, which acted as a sponge in absorbing and storing tiny molecules of liquid.

Over billions of years, the researchers believe, those molecules could have evolved into proteins, DNA and cells. In essence, the molecules stored in clay could very well have naturally evolved into the building blocks of life.

"We propose that in early geological history clay hydrogel provided a confinement function for biomolecules and biochemical reactions," Dan Luo, professor of biological and environmental engineering and a member of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science, said in a press release.