Life's Origin

Life's Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution

Edited by J. William Schopf
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pntj6
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  • Book Info
    Life's Origin
    Book Description:

    Always a controversial and compelling topic, the origin of life on Earth was considered taboo as an area of inquiry for science as recently as the 1950s. Since then, however, scientists working in this area have made remarkable progress, and an overall picture of how life emerged is coming more clearly into focus. We now know, for example, that the story of life's origin begins not on Earth, but in the interiors of distant stars. This book brings a summary of current research and ideas on life's origin to a wide audience. The contributors, all of whom received the Oparin/Urey Gold Medal of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life, are luminaries in the fields of chemistry, paleobiology, and astrobiology, and in these chapters they discuss their life's work: understanding the what, when, and how of the early evolution of life on Earth. Presented in nontechnical language and including a useful glossary of scientific terms,Life's Origingives a state-of-the-art encapsulation of the fascinating work now being done by scientists as they begin to characterize life as a natural outcome of the evolution of cosmic matter.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92870-1
    Subjects: Paleontology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. INTRODUCTION: The What, When, and How of Life’s Beginnings
    (pp. 1-6)
    J. WILLIAM SCHOPF

    In this news-conscious age, everyone knows the journalist’s litany of prime questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. About the origin of life, scientists’ questions are similar, but more restricted. Setting aside thewho(no humans were on hand to observe the event), thewhere(unanswerable except in the broadest terms—on Earth, in water, probably in oceans), and thewhy(a question posed by philosophers and theologians, not scientists), we are left with the three great puzzles this volume addresses:Whatis the origin of life,whendid it begin, andhow?

    At first blush, thewhatseems easy...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings
    (pp. 7-45)
    JOHN ORÓ

    There are three major singularities in the world—the observable universe, life on Earth, and human beings. For the most part, we agree on concepts of what the cosmos and human beings are, but we have reached no consensus on what life is. It is easier to recognize life, in all its common forms, than it is to define it. In 1976, during NASA’s Viking Project to Mars, the late Carl Sagan and I were at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, discussing this very problem. Asked if we would actually recognize life on Mars were we lucky enough...

  5. CHAPTER 2 From Big Bang to Primordial Planet: Setting the Stage for the Origin of Life
    (pp. 46-77)
    ALAN W. SCHWARTZ and SHERWOOD CHANG

    According to modern theory, life arose on the primitive Earth by a process of prebiotic chemical evolution. This process began with syntheses of organic chemical precursors of proteins, nucleic acids, and membranes in the early atmosphere and ocean, and ended with the emergence of life forms capable of self-replication—forms that could undergo Darwinian evolution through mutation and natural selection. Although most researchers accept this view of prebiotic evolution, opinions diverge on the nature and sequence of chemical events between the first and last stages. Many theoretical paths meander through this murky middle ground, but the track culminating in biological...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Formation of the Building Blocks of Life
    (pp. 78-112)
    STANLEY L. MILLER and ANTONIO LAZCANO

    Along with his books, notes, letters, and papers, Charles Robert Darwin bequeathed two recipes to succeeding generations. The first, written in his wife’s recipe book, describes the way to boil rice:

    Add salt to the water and when boiling hot, stir in the rice. Keep it boiling for twelve minutes by the watch, then pour off the water and set the pot on live coals during ten minutes—the rice is then fit for the table.

    His second recipe appears in a letter to his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker (figure 3.1). Sent on February 1, 1871, this letter summarizes Darwin’s...

  7. CHAPTER 4 From Building Blocks to the Polymers of Life
    (pp. 113-139)
    JAMES P. FERRIS

    Nucleic acids and proteins play a central role in life on Earth today. These polymeric biochemicals, composed, respectively, of nucleotides (figure 4.1a) and amino acids (figure 4.2a), provide the catalysis, the genetics, and some of the structure of all living systems. The genetic information in the nucleic acid DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is transcribed to the nucleic acid RNA (ribonucleic acid; figure 4.1b), and this information is then translated from RNA to protein. Most contemporary living systems need other polymers as well. Today, for example, the up-to-date organism uses polymers of sugar—carbohydrates—to store energy and build (plant) cell walls....

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Origin of Biological Information
    (pp. 140-157)
    LESLIE E. ORGEL

    Organic chemists should have invented the computer scientists’ motto, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Proceeding step by step, purifying the product of one step before using it in the next: this is the orthodox approach to organic synthesis. Under carefully controlled conditions, it is just possible to constrain the chemistry of a pure input compound to give a unique product. But garbage in—an impure compound or a complex mixture of compounds—does as it damn well pleases. And it almost always yields an intractable mixture of products—garbage out.

    Unfortunately, all of the most impressive prebiotic syntheses produce garbage by...

  9. CHAPTER 6 When Did Life Begin?
    (pp. 158-180)
    J. WILLIAM SCHOPF

    We have a fairly clear picture ofhowlife began. Sketched in broad strokes, a six-part scenario is plausible: (1) the genesis in distant stars of the chemical elements crucial to life; (2) the formation of the Solar System and accretion of planet Earth; (3) the nonbiologic buildup in Earth’s oceans of small, simple, organic monomers; (4) the linkage of these monomers into larger, more complicated, polymeric organics; (5) the rise of information-containing polymers; (6) the aggregation and assembly of living cells.

    But if the broad strokes are clear, the details are not. We cannot, for example, estimate the likelihood...

  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 181-184)
  11. Glossary
    (pp. 185-204)
  12. Index
    (pp. 205-208)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 209-209)