", Earth was pounded by meteorites throughout its first half-billion years of existence. Why? Cech published the results in 1982. The outer wall of the cell is so essential, some origin-of-life researchers argue that it must have been the first thing that emerged. If RNA could fold like a protein, maybe it could form enzymes. It looks like a simple molecule compared to DNA, but RNA has proved to be enormously difficult to make. Browse the full list. I've really come back to the idea that the first polymer was something pretty close to RNA. It forms when volcanic ash is broken down by the weather. They were not made of cells. In the heat and tempest of the early Earth, a few raw materials must have assembled into crude cells. The following year, another group found a second RNA enzyme – or "ribozyme", as it was dubbed. If mankind were contacted by an alien race, how would the world react? These newly formed organisms would evolve into all forms of life on earth today. The best we can ever do is to draw up a story that is consistent with all the evidence: with experiments in chemistry, with what we know about the early Earth, and with what biology reveals about the oldest forms of life. This is the intuitive idea that living things were endowed with a special, magical property that made them different from inanimate objects. The most obvious is metabolism: the ability to extract energy from your surroundings and use it to keep yourself alive. He suggested that hydrothermal vents in the deep sea, tepid enough for the pyrite structures to form, hosted Wächtershäuser's precursor organisms. A scientific understanding of living systems has existed since the second half of the 19th century. One such chemical was urea, which is found in urine and was isolated in 1799. Nielsen kept the bases the same – sticking with the A, T, C and G found in DNA – but made the backbone out of molecules called polyamides instead of the sugars found in DNA. The volcanoes that created the islands even help keep life going. Montmorillonite is a common clay. Russell had combined two seemingly separate ideas – Wächtershäuser's metabolic cycles and Corliss's hydrothermal vents – into something truly convincing. They are used to form the proteins that control most biochemical processes in our bodies. This story is now regarded as one of the leading hypotheses for the origin of life. By any measure, they are startlingly life-like. We keep ourselves alive by eating food, while green plants do it by extracting energy from sunlight. The chemicals of life can all be made from simpler chemicals that have nothing to do with life. All three ideas acquired adherents and have survived to the present day. Miller connected a series of glass flasks and circulated four chemicals that he suspected were present on the early Earth: boiling water, hydrogen gas, ammonia and methane. The first life cannot have had these complex enzymes, so instead it probably used "naked" metals as catalysts. The springs have the right chemicals, the water level fluctuates so some places will dry out at times, and there is plenty of ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Earth formation. But then it became clear that life was more complicated than anyone had thought. Many observers interpreted the findings as further evidence for the RNA World. Russell set all this out in a paper published in 1993, 40 years after Miller's classic experiment. It was a slam-dunk success, and it made Sutherland's name. While it appears that modern humans are a relatively late entry into the marathon of blood-based, karmic rebirth cycles, there is a lot of speculation about when Homo sapiens emerged as the primary, two-legged leaders of Planet Earth. However, many origin-of-life researchers do not believe reproduction is truly fundamental. The solution was a surprising one. Finally, the process of converting the information in that RNA strand into a protein takes place in an enormously elaborate molecule called a "ribosome". Life was more complicated than anyone had thought. Their enzyme joins together two short pieces of RNA to create a second enzyme. These chemicals are collectively known as lipids, and the idea that they formed the first life has been called the "Lipid World". The decision to add montmorillonite was not done on a whim. Each vent was a kind of primordial soup dispenser. But in 1828, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler found a way to make urea from a common chemical called ammonium cyanate, which had no obvious connection with living things. Chapter 3. Some of the scientists involved have been bedevilled as monsters, while others had to do their work under the heel of brutal totalitarian governments. Writing in 1988, he argued the vents were too hot. The isolation and plate tectonics cause animals and plants to be nowhere found. What's more, PNA can coil up into a double helix, just like DNA. For now Earth is the only world known to harbor life, and among all the living things on our planet we assume Homo sapiens is the only species ever to … Finding two RNA enzymes in quick succession suggested that there were plenty more out there. They found that it was the viral DNA that entered the bacteria: the proteins stayed outside. It was in this repressive environment that Alexander Oparin carried out his research into biochemistry. It is 30 years since Gilbert set out the stall for the RNA World, and we still do not have hard evidence that RNA can do all the things the theory demands of it. After the 1960s, the scientists on the quest to understand life's origins split into three groups. Now the notion that life began with RNA was looking promising. Using this mechanism, genes have been passed down from parent to child since the beginning of life. What's more, this RNA must have been able to replicate inside the protocell. But Sutherland says that is "hopelessly optimistic". RNA world. On the early Earth, there must have been dozens or hundreds of chemicals all floating around together. Even scientists have struggled to shed vitalism. Similarly, everyone born after Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961 has lived in a society that can travel to other worlds. The mystery of life's origin was ignored for decades. Following Leslie Orgel's proposal that RNA came first, researchers have been "trying to get one thing before another thing, and then have that invent the other", says Sutherland. But it was all still theoretical. Corliss proposed that hydrothermal vents could create cocktails of chemicals. In later experiments, Zhu and Szostak have found even more ways to persuade the protocells to divide. The best attempt came in 2011 from Philipp Holliger of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. The biggest and most important experiment on Earth is the one we're all conducting, right now, on Earth itself. There would also be currents, driven by the streams of hot water, which could help the protocells divide. But metabolic cycles like the ones Wächtershäuser described are at the core of every living thing. Adding the third phosphate takes a lot of energy, which is then locked up in the ATP. But in 2000 Steitz's team produced a detailed image of the ribosome's structure, which showed that the RNA was the catalytic core of the ribosome. Almost all of the branches are bacteria. This is what Martin did. The original inhabitants of Australia . Haldane had already made enormous contributions to evolutionary theory, helping to integrate Darwin's ideas with the emerging science of genetics. Nowhere else in the solar system is there an atmosphere loaded with free oxygen, which is vital to one of the other unique features of Earth: life. Oceanic islands can be home to species found nowhere else on Earth. This knowledge will change us. "It's the only one we can think of that's compatible with the chemistry. Aborigines. There’s Nowhere Else On Earth With A Downtown Quite Like St. Marys, West Virginia OnlyInYourState | 1h West Virginia is a unique state, full of unique towns populated with unique people…just the way we like it. Even meat. Instead, it was made almost entirely of RNA. Maybe there was some other type of molecule on the early Earth. Of course, there are beings like angels, cherubim, and other heavenly host that are viewed as spiritual life in heaven. The RNA World is an elegant way to make complex life from scratch. All these organisms lived on the energy from the hydrothermal vents. That was good. His team created a pool of random sequences and tested them to see which ones showed catalytic activity. Each group favoured their own narrative and, for the most part, rubbished competing hypotheses. While there are plenty of theories about what happened on our planet that led to the development of life, many researchers choose to turn their eyes outward. The molecules were simply the wrong shape. In April 2016, scientists presented an updated version of the "tree of life": a kind of family tree for every living species. Top Brochure of Like Nowhere Else on Earth: The Wildlife & Cultures of Madagascar. In other words, he figured out how their metabolism could have worked. To compensate, the protocell picked up more fatty acids and incorporated them into its wall, allowing it to swell to a larger size and releasing the tension. As ever more RNA molecules were packed into a protocell, the outer wall came under increasing tension. We cannot know for sure what happened four billion years ago. The trick was to make the protocells divide without spilling their guts. Squeezing them through small holes stretched them out into tubes, which then broke into "daughter" protocells. One could potentially be fixed: the other might be fatal. If you watch coacervates under a microscope, they behave unnervingly like living cells. The island nation of Madagascar has developed its own distinct ecosystems and extraordinary wildlife since it split from the African continent an estimated 160 million years ago. In other words, what if there was once a small body of water, filled with simple organic compounds and bathed in sunlight. Today life has conquered every square inch of Earth, but when the planet formed it was a dead rock. The idea that life formed in a primordial soup of organic chemicals became known as the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis. There was no experimental evidence to back it up. "You look at that and it's just 'wow, that's too complicated'. BBC published this video item, entitled “Like Nowhere Else” – below is their description. He thought that the vent theory could be made to work after all. In the 1980s he found fossil evidence of a less extreme kind of hydrothermal vent, where the temperatures were below 150C. Our entire approach to the origin of life for the last 40 years has been wrong. With a splendid disregard for his own safety, he once set off an explosion that embedded a glass tube into the ceiling. "It was massively iconic, stimulated the public's imagination and continues to be cited extensively," says Sutherland. But Sutherland himself does not see it like that at all. While deforestation has slowed across the Amazon, it has accelerated in adjacent ecosystems, including the Cerrado, … When the team removed all the enzymes and other molecules that might be acting as molecular scissors, the RNA kept doing it. The mixtures Stanley Miller made back in the 1950s, which we looked at in Chapter One, were far messier than Sutherland's. "You have hydrothermal vents but not like the deep-sea vents, more like the kind of vents we have in volcanic areas like Yellowstone. This huge molecule reads instructions from RNA and strings together amino acids to make proteins. The fact that this essential machine was based on RNA made the RNA World even more plausible. One of the most influential suggestions was put forward in the late 1980s by Günter Wächtershäuser. We will probably never find direct fossil evidence of LUCA, but we can still make an educated guess as to how it might have looked and behaved by looking at microorganisms that do survive today. Miller found that "the water in the flask became noticeably pink after the first day, and by the end of the week the solution was deep red and turbid". On the Moon, based on the history of its formation, its lack of an atmosphere and its classification as a “dead” rock, there is no feasible way for life to develop … The details turned out to be wrong, since later studies showed that the early Earth's atmosphere had a different mix of gases. His team created a modified R18 called tC19Z, which copies sequences up to 95 nucleotides long. This means we can define the problem of the origin of life more precisely. By 1987, Orgel could take an RNA strand 14 nucleotides long and create complementary strands that were also 14 nucleotides long. "Things are looking a lot more achievable," says Sutherland. He repeated his classic experiment, which we discussed in Chapter One, this time using methane, nitrogen, ammonia and water – and obtained the polyamide backbone of PNA. But it had proved impossible to persuade the sugar and base to join up. Life on other Earth-like planets, for example, is possible in an infinite universe, but not probable, according to a scientist from the University of East Anglia. The first person to really tackle this head-on was a British chemist named Leslie Orgel. As a child he was so fascinated with chemistry that he had a lab in his basement. Thus far, the most fruitful approach has been to examine life on our own planet. Scientific meetings on the origin of life have often been fractious affairs. Instead, it points to the geothermal ponds found near active volcanoes. There were valuable clues buried in those dusty papers. Just to make it even more impressive, Russell also offered an explanation for how the first organisms obtained their energy. His idea relied on the work of one of modern science's forgotten geniuses. All the other things that make up modern organisms – like DNA, cells and brains – came later. Finally, Earth has water. Others followed in his footsteps, and it was soon clear that the chemicals of life can all be made from simpler chemicals that have nothing to do with life. That means we are approaching one of the great divides in human history: the divide between those who know the story of life's beginning, and those who never could. Urey was sceptical, but Miller talked him into it. That is no longer true. PNA, unlike RNA, might have formed readily on the early Earth. We would meet at origins meetings and get into these long arguments. Cyanide-related chemicals were proving to be a common theme, and in 2015 Sutherland took them even further. Despite their intricacy, these protocells were still easy to make. This then joins together another two RNA pieces to recreate the original enzyme. He was not a full-time scientist, but rather a patent lawyer with a background in chemistry. In Darwin's theory of evolution, the ability to create offspring is absolutely central: the only way an organism can "win" is to leave behind lots of children. If we assume that life formed on Earth – which seems reasonable, given that we have … His approach is "everything-first". Oparin imagined what Earth was like when it was newly formed. By suggesting that life began with RNA and little else, Orgel was proposing that one crucial aspect of life – its ability to reproduce itself – appeared before all the others. On other life-bearing planets it may happen faster, it may take longer, or it may not develop … Szostak had hit a wall. He had even proposed that pyrite was involved. The product of some 4.6 billion years of cosmic construction, our planet is flush with life thanks to a fortuitous set of conditions. The first problem is that there is no experimental evidence for the processes Russell and Martin describe. Nor can DNA. In 2000, Albert Eschenmoser made threose nucleic acid (TNA). Most famously, Stalin effectively banned scientists from studying conventional genetics. This problem was already clear by the early 1990s. Eventually the Earth cooled enough for water vapour to condense into liquid water, and the first rain fell. Metabolic cycles may not seem life-like, but they are fundamental to life. The dinosaurs are perhaps the most famous extinct creatures, and they had their beginnings 250 million years ago. Each RNA nucleotide is made of a sugar, a base and a phosphate. Confusingly, it has since become known as peptide nucleic acid. They had discovered the first RNA enzyme: a short piece of RNA that was able to cut itself out of the larger strand it was part of. "If you look at modern metabolism, there's all these really suggestive things like iron-sulphur clusters," says Szostak. This boosted the case that the protocells were similar to the first life, which must have endured scalding heat from constant meteor impacts. If we assume that life formed on Earth – which seems reasonable, given that we have not yet found it anywhere else – then it must have done so in the billion years between Earth coming into being and the preservation of the oldest known fossils. If Russell was correct, life began at the bottom of the sea. Wächtershäuser needed a real-world discovery that backed up his ideas. For example, a strand of RNA that reads "CGC" will produce a complementary strand that reads "GCG". The Galápagos Islands are home to animals and plants found nowhere else on Earth. But everyone alive now, barring isolated groups, can know the truth about our kinship with other animals. They think that the "genetics first" efforts discussed in Chapter Three and the "metabolism first" ideas discussed in Chapter Four are misguided. He became convinced that vents like those of Lost City were where life began. They found that the reaction needed magnesium to work, which was a problem because the magnesium destroyed the protocells. The impact zones tend to be rich in useful metals like iron, as well as sulphur. But life dates back much further. Therefore, most research in this area looks at the most basic components common to all known living things: ribonucleic acid, or RNA.This is a far simpler and more essential molecule than the more famous deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, that defines how we are put together. Each stream would have a slightly different mix of chemicals, so different reactions would happen and a whole host of organic chemicals would be produced. He has built an "origin of life reactor", which will simulate the conditions inside an alkaline vent. Only living things seemed to be able to make these chemicals, so perhaps they were infused with life energy and that was what made them special. By cutting and pasting different bits of RNA together, the RNA molecules could create ever more useful sequences. But beyond that, we cannot yet know the wisdom the origin of life will reveal. Crick and Watson realised that DNA is a double helix, like a ladder that has been twisted into a spiral. What's more, Szostak says the ponds would be suitable for his protocells. If you do this twice, you will get a copy of the original "CGC", just in a roundabout way. What's more, the fossil remains of these cooler vents held something strange. Otherwise, the earth would be a remarkably special place, and that could easily lead to theistic ideas. "There were certain key aspects of RNA chemistry that didn't work," says Sutherland. Only an idiot would deny that there is a limit to how many people our Earth … How could you possibly set up a working metabolism or a self-replicating RNA, each of which relies on having a lot of chemicals in one place, unless you first have a container to keep all the molecules in? Yes, cells are intricate machines. These jumbled RNA/DNA chains could even fold up neatly. Wächtershäuser proposed that the first organisms were "drastically different from anything we know". On this ridge, Kelley found a field of hydrothermal vents that she called "Lost City". These milder temperatures, he argued, would allow the molecules of life to survive far longer than Miller had assumed they would. This is basically DNA, but with a different sugar in its backbone. It is happening inside your cells right now. In 1988, Cech found an RNA enzyme that could build a short RNA molecule about 10 nucleotides long. This can tell us much about the adaptability of life and the prospects that it might survive upheavals on other planets. "Even if you made a reactor and out pops E. coli on the other side… you still can't prove that we arose that way," says Martin. It seems like an obvious subject to explore, but in fact the mystery of life's origin was ignored for decades. This idea would soon gain a crucial supporter in Jack Szostak, whose work on the RNA World hypothesis we explored in Chapter Three. What do oceanographers and astronauts have in common? Key compounds like sugars "would survive… for seconds at most". So Sutherland has set out to find a "Goldilocks chemistry": one that is not so messy that it becomes useless, but also not so simple that it is limited in what it can do. This time he needed to add copper cyanide to make the reactions go. It takes a battalion of enzymes and other molecules to build a replica copy of a piece of RNA or DNA. Similar environments may be present elsewhere in the solar system. Günter Wächtershäuser made this point when he suggested that life formed on iron pyrite. There is just one problem. Suddenly, making one from scratch began to look like a much bigger challenge than scientists had anticipated. This promises something that neither the RNA World nor the hydrothermal vents have so far managed: a way to make an entire cell from scratch. He became convinced that vents like those of Lost City were where life began. In his novel, Contact, the late, great astronomer Carl Saganexplores this fascinating question. In light of this, it is telling that many of Sutherland's chemical reactions rely on copper (and, incidentally, on the sulphur that Wächtershäuser also emphasised), and that the RNA in Szostak's protocells needs magnesium. After the war he fought to keep nuclear technology in civilian control. Corliss found that the ridges were pockmarked with, essentially, hot springs. Today the idea clings on in unexpected places. You might not think that a person wolfing down a juicy steak looks much like a leafy oak tree, but when you get right down to it, both are taking in energy. The oldest known fossils are around 3.5 billion years old, 14 times the age of the oldest dinosaurs. What's more, the shape of the tree suggests that a bacterium was the common ancestor of all life. Each strand is then used as a template to recreate a copy of the other. The last step in Sutherland's process was to bolt a phosphate onto the nucleotide. That was less good. So when a cell needs to make a particular protein, it reads the relevant gene in the DNA to get the sequence of amino acids. These discoveries include the wide diversity of life near sea–floor hydrothermal vent systems, where some organisms live essentially on chemical energy in the absence of sunlight. They did not have enzymes, DNA or RNA. These proteins are known as enzymes. In combination with the availability of water and the abundance of oxygen these conditions make Earth a suitable planet for life. The challenge was to make the protocells out of just the right stuff. These ponds have exactly the cocktail of metals found in cells. The case has also been weakened by chemists' failure to make RNA from scratch. He knew that all cells store their energy in the same molecule: adenosine triphosphate (ATP). He was able to keep working because he was a loyal Communist: he supported Lysenko's ideas and even received the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration that could be bestowed on someone living in the USSR. Before an organism can reproduce, they say, it has to be self-sustaining. Others thought the key first step was a metabolic system, and yet others focused on the importance of genetics and replication. RNA is similar to DNA, except that it only has one strand. But the enzymes only worked if they were given the correct RNA strands, which Joyce and Lincoln had to make. 2. Meanwhile, a third group maintained that the first thing to appear was a container for the key molecules, to keep them from floating off. "Szostak is doing great work," says Armen Mulkidjanian. That suited the USSR just fine. Several decades of work had suggested that montmorillonite, and clays like it, could be important in the origin of life. Your DNA tells your cells how to make proteins: molecules that perform a host of essential tasks. Right from the start, there were two problems with the RNA World idea. Like DNA, it is fundamental to life as we know it. There’s deep love underneath all the other obligations. "I thought that work was just really cool," he says. The crucial bit is a chain of three phosphates, anchored to the adenosine. They evolved from simpler organisms to have different types of cells with individual functions. The theory of evolution said nothing about how that first organism came into being. A cell with an outer wall, but no genes inside it, could not do anything much. The protocells can grow and divide, and even compete with each other. In 1952, Miller began the most famous experiment on the origin of life ever attempted. We now know that the process Mitchell identified is used by every living thing on Earth. Suddenly, Oparin and Haldane's ideas looked naively simple. Then you must use that energy to build useful things like cells. Take a single strand of RNA and a pool of loose nucleotides. But no known RNA can self-replicate. As well as narrowing down when life began, we can make an educated guess at what it was. This idea got its first big boost a few years ago from a result that, on the face of it, seemed to support the traditional, replication-first RNA World. One task stood out. What's more, the protocells could perform the cycle repeatedly, with daughter protocells growing and then dividing themselves. Metabolic cycles may not seem life-like, but they are fundamental to life. Sort by: Top Voted. Now two things could happen. I really enjoyed this story of survival - both against the elements and against the bad guys. By then he was 70 years old, and had just suffered the first in a series of debilitating strokes that would ultimately leave him confined to a nursing home, but he was not quite done. The only source of ultraviolet radiation is the Sun, so his reactions can only take place in sunny places. Corliss's vents would not do. It’s even possible that life formed multiple times on Earth in different eras. How did life get started? Thanks to Kelley, they now knew that the rocks of alkaline vents were porous: they were pocked with tiny holes filled with water. Islands are free of disease and carnivores. Mitchell knew that the enzyme that makes ATP sits on a membrane. To simulate lightning, they added an electrical spark. In the early 1980s, Cech and his colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder were studying a single-celled organism called Tetrahymena thermophila. In 2000 he produced some hard evidence. Thanks to Orgel, the idea that life began with RNA and genetics got off to an early head start. Instead of making the vesicles out of one pure fatty acid, they made them from a mixture of two. I think the idea of volcanic systems might also work. 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