Origin of Life


Primitive life – defined as a chemical system capable of transferring its molecular information via self‐replication and also capable of evolving – probably originated about 4 billion years ago from the processing of organic molecules by liquid water. Organic matter might have been formed in the primitive atmosphere from methane or carbon dioxide but also in submarine hydrothermal vents. A large fraction of prebiotic organic material might have been brought by meteoritic and cometary dust grains decelerated by the atmosphere. Strategies to understand the origin of life include the reconstitution in the laboratory of an artificial life capable of self‐reproduction and evolution, the search for fossil traces of life in Archean sediments and the search for another example of natural life beyond the Earth, on Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus and exoplanets.

Key Concepts

  • Life emerged about 4 billion years ago with organic molecules capable of self‐reproduction and of evolving in liquid water.
  • A large fraction of the prebiotic organic material came from space.
  • The reconstruction of life in a test tube lacks a simple synthesis of RNA.
  • The very early fossil traces of life have been erased.
  • The oldest accepted fossil traces of life are 3.45 billion years old.
  • Mars harboured large oceans in the past and was, therefore, hospitable to life.
  • Life may be present within the Europa's ocean.
  • Organic chemistry is universal. Life may, therefore, arise on appropriate extrasolar planets.

Keywords: prebiotic chemistry; chemical evolution; geological records; microfossils; mars; europa; titan; exoplanets

Figure 1. Micrometeorites (50–100 μm) collected in Antarctica ice. Courtesy of M Maurette.
Figure 2. Fossilised coccoidal cells in a ∼3.5‐Ga‐old volcanic sediment from the Pilbara, Australia. Two sizes of cells are present: a small dividing pair at the bottom of the image, 0.4 μm in diameter, and larger cells, 0.8 μm in diameter, also exhibiting cell division. Courtesy of F Westall.


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Further Reading

Basiuk VA (2010) Astrobiology: Emergence, Search and Detection of Life. American Scientific Publishers: Los Angeles.

Brack A (ed.) (1998) The Molecular Origins of Life: Assembling Pieces of the Puzzle. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Camprubí E, de Leeuw JW, House CH, et al. (2019) The emergence of life. Space Science Reviews 215: 56–109. DOI: 10.1007/s11214‐019‐0624‐8.

Fiore M (2019) The origin and early evolution of life: prebiotic chemistry of biomolecules. Special issue. Life. DOI: 10.3390/books978‐3‐03921‐607‐9.

Gargaud M, Barbier B, Martin H and Reisse J (2006) Lectures in Astrobiology, Vol 1‐ part 1 & 2. Springer: Berlin.

Gargaud M, Claeys P and Martin H (2006) Lectures in Astrobiology, vol. 2. Springer: Berlin.

Gargaud M, Claeys P, Lopez‐Garcia P, et al. (2006) From Suns to Life: A Chronological Approach to the History of Life on Earth. Springer: Berlin.

Gilmour I and Sephton M (2004) An Introduction to Astrobiology. The Open University/Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Horneck G and Rettberg P (2007) Complete Course in Astrobiology. Wiley: Weinheim.

Rauchfuss H (2008) Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life. Springer: Berlin.

Ruiz‐Mirazo K, Briones C and de la Escosura A (2014) Prebiotic systems chemistry: new perspectives for the origins of life. Chemical Reviews 114: 285–366.

Sullivan WT III and Baross JA (2007) Planets and Life. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Wong T‐F and Lazcano A (2009) Prebiotic Evolution and Astrobiology. Landes Bioscience: Austin.

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Brack, André(Dec 2020) Origin of Life. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0029235]