First Life

First Life: Discovering the Connections between Stars, Cells, and How Life Began

David Deamer
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnnb2
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  • Book Info
    First Life
    Book Description:

    This pathbreaking book explores how life can begin, taking us from cosmic clouds of stardust, to volcanoes on Earth, to the modern chemistry laboratory. Seeking to understand life's connection to the stars, David Deamer introduces astrobiology, a new scientific discipline that studies the origin and evolution of life on Earth and relates it to the birth and death of stars, planet formation, interfaces between minerals, water, and atmosphere, and the physics and chemistry of carbon compounds. Deamer argues that life began as systems of molecules that assembled into membrane-bound packages. These in turn provided an essential compartment in which more complex molecules assumed new functions required for the origin of life and the beginning of evolution. Deamer takes us from the vivid and unpromising chaos of the Earth four billion years ago up to the present and his own laboratory, where he contemplates the prospects for generating synthetic life. Engaging and accessible,First Lifedescribes the scientific story of astrobiology while presenting a fascinating hypothesis to explain the origin of life.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94895-2
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-6)

    It was early evening in Baja California. The sun had disappeared behind the ragged mountains to the west, leaving the tiny bay of Puerto Escondido in darkness. My two kids were trying to get to sleep, and I could see the shadow of their mother moving in the tent, backlit by a candle. Several young graduate students, who had been noisily diving all day, carrying out the photography and tedious collecting of field research, were now asleep. A faint glow emanated from the quiet water of the bay. As I walked across the still warm beach, thin lines of phosphorescence...

  5. 1 A FIREBALL OVER AUSTRALIA
    (pp. 7-22)

    In the summer of 1981, a small black stone wrapped in aluminum foil changed the course of my life. About the size of a marble and indistinguishable from any other rock that might be found on a beach, this stone had traveled from southeastern Australia to NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, where researcher Sherwood Chang showed me the specimen and gave me a small sample to test. But the stone had traveled even farther. It was a piece of a meteor that had lit up the night sky over the town of Murchison, Australia, in September 1969....

  6. 2 WHERE DID LIFE BEGIN?
    (pp. 23-36)

    Our driver turned off the engine of his rumbling Russian Army troop carrier and left us at the edge of a deep canyon carved through layers of ash by a small stream of glacial meltwater. We began to climb, following a faint trail that led toward a peak still hidden in clouds. Vladimir Kopanichenko, our guide, led us up mud-covered slopes, crunching over packed snow and ice among tumbled, house-sized boulders. Despite a chilly wind that whistled past, even in late summer, we were hot and sweaty and often stopped to catch our breath and to take in the amazing...

  7. 3 WHEN DID LIFE BEGIN?
    (pp. 37-52)

    Much of what we know about the origins of life is based on educated guesses, but a few things are reasonably certain. For instance, with some confidence I can state that the solar system is 4.57 billion years old, and Earth is about 4.53 billion years old. Easy to say, but how can we know for sure? And why isn’t Earth as old as the solar system? The reason we have a certain amount of confidence in such numbers is that over the past century, physicists discovered radioactivity and began to understand how radioactive elements could change into other elements...

  8. 4 CARBON AND THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF LIFE
    (pp. 53-78)

    The first time I ground up a marble-sized sample of the Murchison meteorite, a strange, penetrating odor rose from the mortar, simultaneously smoky, dusty, and sour, reminiscent of a cigar butt or the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. It was a distinctive smell that I would now recognize anywhere. It was the odor of outer space, nearly five billion years old, the aroma of organic compounds that were delivered directly to Earth during the birth of our solar system. Nothing could be more convincing of the link between cosmic processes and life on Earth.

    Carbon compounds present in meteorites...

  9. 5 THE HANDEDNESS OF LIFE
    (pp. 79-90)

    After completing his post-doctoral research at NASA Ames, Jason Dworkin joined the scientific staff at NASA Goddard, in Maryland, where he continues to make important contributions to our understanding of life’s origin. The quote above is from a recent paper by his research group, and serves to introduce the topic of this chapter. In the previous chapter, I described how organic compounds can be synthesized from the biogenic elements, and how we study meteorites to learn about this process. But there is more to the story because some organic molecules exist in two forms that are mirror images of each...

  10. 6 ENERGY AND LIFE’S ORIGINS
    (pp. 91-110)

    Richard Feynman was a truly brilliant intellect and a remarkable human being. He established physical theory that still guides our understanding of what happens at the subatomic level of physics, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1965, but he also joyfully played bongo drums in Mardi Gras parades in Rio de Janeiro. His lectures at CalTech are wonderful examples of how to teach with clarity, and the quote above is taken from one of his discussions. The fact is that we spend our lives in a world driven by energy, but it is not a simple matter to...

  11. 7 SELF-ASSEMBLY AND EMERGENCE
    (pp. 111-132)

    In the early 1960s, it was becoming clear that all cells had a very thin boundary membrane that formed a permeability barrier between the inside and outside, but no one was quite sure about its molecular structure. There was evidence that cell membranes were about 5 nanometers thick, in the range expected for a lipid bilayer. About this time, J. David Robertson at Duke University began to study cells with a new kind of microscope that used electrons rather than light. The electron microscope had much higher resolving power and could produce images of structures having molecular dimensions. What Robertson...

  12. 8 HOW TO BUILD A CELL
    (pp. 133-144)

    In the 1980s, following up the ideas generated during my sabbatical with Alec Bangham at Babraham, I began a research effort to understand how cellular life could have appeared on early Earth. It soon became clear that there were three major questions to be addressed: What kinds of lipidlike molecules were available to form membranous vesicles? How could something as large as a protein or nucleic acid be captured by a lipid vesicle to produce a protocell? And even if protocells could be produced, how could potential nutrients in the environment get across the membrane barrier to supply the trapped...

  13. 9 ACHIEVING COMPLEXITY
    (pp. 145-158)

    François Jacob and Jacques Monod were first to demonstrate that genes are tightly regulated and can be switched on and off as required in order to respond to changes in the environment. Jacob and Monod invented a new name for the switch, calling it an operon because, in a sense, it operates the machinery of the cell. For their discovery, Jacob and Monod shared the Nobel Prize in 1965.

    Monod’s quote above is perfect for introducing this chapter. It makes a point that is central to the question of how life began, which is that the first forms of life...

  14. 10 MULTIPLE STRANDS OF LIFE
    (pp. 159-180)

    In the 1967 movieThe Graduate, the secret of the good life was revealed to young Dustin Hoffman in a single word: “Plastics!” In fact, life and plastic do share one important property: Both are based on long strings of chemicals that form polymers. In the case of plastic, the chemical units are simple compounds like ethylene (polyethylene) or styrene (polystyrene), but life uses more complex molecules called amino acids to make polymeric proteins, and it uses nucleotides to make nucleic acids like DNA.

    At this point in the book, it is time to list the five major gaps in...

  15. 11 CATALYSTS: LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
    (pp. 181-194)

    Scientific breakthroughs can be very exciting for the people who make the discoveries. Bill Scott is a faculty member in my department here at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and when he and his graduate student Monika Martick began to get X-ray diffraction patterns from crystals of ribozymes, Bill had this to say in an interview for a news release in 2006:

    Monika e-mailed me from the Stanford Synchrotron at 3 a.m. to show me the most beautiful electron density map I had ever seen. I was so amazed I probably didn’t sleep for the next three weeks.

    Why...

  16. 12 COPYING LIFE’S BLUEPRINTS
    (pp. 195-208)

    It is common knowledge now that DNA is a double helix, and we know so much about the function and structure of DNA that we tend to forget that there must have been a much simpler version of a polymer that was able to grow and then replicate in some way. “Replication” is an amazing word. It captures the essence of life, distilling it down to the molecular structure of DNA. The quotation above is taken from a paper that demonstrates how close we are to understanding how a replicating system of ribozyme catalysts can function. So in this chapter...

  17. 13 HOW EVOLUTION BEGINS
    (pp. 209-218)

    The ability to evolve is the final aspect of any definition of life. Whatever system of molecules we imagine to be the first form of life or fabricate in the laboratory as synthetic life must have a demonstrated capacity for evolution. As a graduate student working on biophysical problems having to do with membranes, I had no particular interest in questions related to evolution, but in 1967 I joined the Zoology faculty at the University of California, Davis, where Francisco Ayala was an assistant professor in genetics. Francisco was a former student of Theodosius Dobzhansky when he was at Columbia...

  18. 14 A GRAND SIMULATION OF PREBIOTIC EARTH
    (pp. 219-240)

    I was a high school student in Ohio when Peter Mitchell wrote the carefully worded sentences quoted above. They are taken from a brief note he published in the proceedings of the first major international conference on the origins of life, which convened in Moscow in 1957. Looking down the list of participants, it amazes me to realize who had made the arduous trip to this meeting long before there was convenient international travel on jet airplanes. The attendees included young Stanley Miller, who just a few years earlier had published his sole-author paper that showed how amino acids could...

  19. 15 PROSPECTS FOR SYNTHETIC LIFE
    (pp. 241-248)

    In Mary Shelley’s classic tale, Dr. Victor Frankenstein assembled a human body from parts retrieved from corpses. The novel, first published nearly 200 years ago, raised questions that we would now consider to fall within the realm of bioethics. If Dr. Frankenstein wanted to carry out his experiment today, he would need to bring it to the attention of the IRB (Institutional Review Board) at his university who would doubtless reject it. And yet, a number of laboratories around the world are attempting to perform a reconstitution of life eerily similar to Frankenstein’s dream—to invent something alive, but on...

  20. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 249-258)

    What is it about research on the origins of life that stirs such strong sentiments in my fellow citizens? I wrote back to this gentleman, saying that I had calculated the cost of my research to U.S. taxpayers, which totaled one cent each. He immediately responded, saying that was one cent too much. I didn’t offer to refund his share of the cost, but his response made me realize that in some people’s minds, scientific attempts to discover how life began or to create artificial life are a total waste of my time and their tax money, perhaps even blasphemous....

  21. SOURCES AND NOTES
    (pp. 259-266)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 267-272)