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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 Origin gives 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.
List of Figures and Tables
Introduction: The What, When, and How of Life’s Beginnings
1. Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings
What Is Life?
Beliefs and Hypotheses on the Origin of Life
Cosmological Evolution and the Origin of Life
The Earth–Moon System
Exploration of the Solar System
Life Beyond the Solar System
2. From Big Bang to Primordial Planet: Setting the Stage for the Origin of Life
Alan W. Schwartz and Sherwood Chang
Origin of the Biogenic Elements
Origin of the Solar System
3. Formation of the Building Blocks of Life
Stanley L. Miller and Antonio Lazcano
The Heterotrophic Origin of Life
Prebiotic Syntheses of Amino Acids
Synthesis of Nucleic Acid Bases
Prebiotic Synthesis of Sugars
Hydrothermal Vents and the Origin of Life
Extraterrestrial Organic Compounds and Prebiotic Evolution
An Autotrophic Origin of Life?
Have Too Many Cooks Spoiled the Soup?
4. From Building Blocks to the Polymers of Life
James P. Ferris
The Biopolymers in the First Life
The RNA World: The Prebiotic Synthesis of RNA
The Role of Polypeptides in the Origin of Life
5. The Origin of Biological Information
Leslie E. Orgel
The RNA World
What’s Wrong with the Molecular Biologist’s Dream?
The Metabolist Argument
Conclusion and Outlook
6. When Did Life Begin?
J. William Schopf
Evidence from Living Organisms
Evidence from the Rock Record
When Was Earth Ready for Life?
The What and When of Life’s Beginnings
List of Contributors
J. William Schopf is Professor of Paleobiology and Director of the IGPP Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is author of Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils (1999) and Missing Fossils: Solution to the Mystery of Photosynthesis (1998), and has edited several other volumes.
“Editor J. William Schopf has assembled a council of shamans to tell the scientific versions of the story [of the origins of life]. . . . Many of them have led, and all have been honored by, the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life; all have made monumental contributions to the field.”—Jason P. Dworkin American Scientist