Glimpses of Life’s Puzzling Origins (w/ Podcast)
The New York Times Science section has a fascinating article on the current state of research into the origin of life on earth: New Glimpses of Life’s Puzzling Origins.
Some 3.9 billion years ago, a shift in the orbit of the Sun’s outer planets sent a surge of large comets and asteroids careening into the inner solar system. Their violent impacts gouged out the large craters still visible on the Moon’s face, heated Earth’s surface into molten rock and boiled off its oceans into an incandescent mist.
Yet rocks that formed on Earth 3.8 billion years ago, almost as soon as the bombardment had stopped, contain possible evidence of biological processes. If life can arise from inorganic matter so quickly and easily, why is it not abundant in the solar system and beyond? If biology is an inherent property of matter, why have chemists so far been unable to reconstruct life, or anything close to it, in the laboratory?
The origins of life on Earth bristle with puzzle and paradox. Which came first, the proteins of living cells or the genetic information that makes them? How could the metabolism of living things get started without an enclosing membrane to keep all the necessary chemicals together? But if life started inside a cell membrane, how did the necessary nutrients get in?
The questions may seem moot, since life did start somehow. But for the small group of researchers who insist on learning exactly how it started, frustration has abounded. Many once-promising leads have led only to years of wasted effort. Scientists as eminent as Francis Crick, the chief theorist of molecular biology, have quietly suggested that life may have formed elsewhere before seeding the planet, so hard does it seem to find a plausible explanation for its emergence on Earth.
In the last few years, however, four surprising advances have renewed confidence that a terrestrial explanation for life’s origins will eventually emerge.
And here’s the NYT’s Science Times podcast, with more on the story: