Wednesday, October 10, 2007

SCIENCE Questions: How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?


"How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?" is one of the top 25 questions from the 125th anniversary issue of Science magazine [Science, July 1, 2005]. The complete reference is ...
Zimmer, Carl (2005) How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise? Science 309:89. [Text] [PDF]
Carl Zimmer is one of the best science writers on the planet. He has just won the National Academies 2007 Communication Award. It goes with his many other prizes and awards. Carl has a blog [The Loom].

I've criticized many of the other articles in this series because they either misrepresented the science or blew it up out of all proportion. It should come as no surprise that Carl Zimmer's piece does not do that.

The question—how did life originate?—is without a doubt one of the top 25 questions facing us today. The subject is complex but Carl covers it in a single page without resorting to hype or misrepresentation. He mentions the fossil evidence then discusses the idea of an RNA world and how it might have formed. Then he turns his attention to the controversial field of prebiotic chemistry. Here's an example of science writing at its best.
Just where on Earth these building blocks came together as primitive life forms is a subject of debate. Starting in the 1980s, many scientists argued that life got its start in the scalding, mineral-rich waters streaming out of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Evidence for a hot start included studies on the tree of life, which suggested that the most primitive species of microbes alive today thrive in hot water. But the hot-start hypothesis has cooled off a bit. Recent studies suggest that heat-loving microbes are not living fossils. Instead, they may have descended from less hardy species and evolved new defenses against heat. Some skeptics also wonder how delicate RNA molecules could have survived in boiling water. No single strong hypothesis has taken the hot start's place, however, although suggestions include tidal pools or oceans covered by glaciers.

Research projects now under way may shed more light on how life began.


  1. Since I wrote that piece back in 2005, I've seen a couple papers that favor a hot ancestor and here

  2. Why does it say on the Nobel Prize website that the Nobel Prize is celebrated every December 10th when the Nobel Prize was celebrated today, October 10th? There's a science question for you.

  3. Was the first life chimioautotrophic, or did it feed from organic molecules in its environment?
    We hear too much about the RNA world and not enough about the autotrophic theory of life (set in the thermophilic scenario) of G. Wachterhauser.

  4. @ Skeptic4you:

    That's because this week the Nobel Prizes are ANNOUNCED, and in December they are handed out and CELEBRATED in Stockholm!

  5. Research projects now under way may shed more light...

    And that is the distinguishing feature of science compared with ID..."We don't know but we're trying to find out".

  6. "SCIENCE Questions: How and Where Did Life on Earth Arise?"

    It was at the Omphalos.

  7. There are many possibilities Zimmer couldn't mention in such a short article. For example, pyrrhite chimneys.

  8. The memory trick for Nobel celebration timing is that the Nobel prize winners may stay to Dec 13, St. Lucia's Day, when swedes set the hair of a blond (or nowadays any color) on fire. If the candle crown burns down too much, that is. For some reason the Nobelists are prone to find these festivities pleasurable.

    pyrrhite chimneys

    Are you trying to fool us non-geologists more than we do ourselves over "fool's gold"? Pyrrhotite is an iron-sulfur mineral (really a blend) that differs from pyrite.

    "Pyrite chimneys" googles over "pyrrhotite chimneys" with 43 000-10 300, while "pyrrhite chimneys" scrapes together a measly 9 hits. (At least one of which is created by "Mustafa Mond, FCD". Mustafa, is that you? :-)