Earth, Life, and System: Evolution and Ecology on a Gaian Planet

By Bruce Clarke | Go to book overview

2
THE RNA/PROTEIN WORLD AND THE
ENDOPREBIOTIC ORIGIN OF LIFE

SANKAR CHATTERJEE

When the Earth formed some 4.6 billion years ago, it was lifeless and inhospitable to life, a cauldron of erupting volcanoes, raining meteors, and hot noxious gases.1 One billion years later, it was a placid watery planet teeming with microbial life, the ancestors to all other living things (Figure 2-1).2 How could this have happened? The problem of the origin of life on this planet has engaged the attention of some of the keenest minds in philosophy and science since the time of Aristotle. For the past century, the debate on the origin of life was centered entirely on the chemical evolution of cells from organic molecules by a long succession of chemical processes. However, the origin of life was not an isolated prebiotic chemical event. I argue it included four hierarchical interconnected stages—cosmic, geological, chemical, and biological. Additionally, in recent times, with the exploration of space, the study of the origin of life has shifted to a broader perspective including planetary beginnings and exobiology, or the question of life on other planets. Current analysis of surface material by the Curiosity rover may provide crucial evidence whether Mars could ever have supported life. By studying the inner planets and their moons, we have begun to reconstruct the early history of our own planet when life might have emerged. The universal and uniform architecture of bacterial cells and the genetic code point to unity of type and

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