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Life's Origin

The Beginnings of Biological Evolution

J. William Schopf

Publication Year: 2002

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.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Introduction: The What, When, and How of Life’s Beginnings

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pp. 1-6

In this news-conscious age, everyone knows the journalist’s litany of prime questions: who, what, when, where, why, how. About the origin of life, scientists’ questions are similar, but more restricted. Setting aside the who (no humans were on hand to observe the event), the where (unanswerable except in the broadest terms—on Earth, in water, probably ...

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1. Historical Understanding of Life’s Beginnings

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pp. 7-45

There are three major singularities in the world—the observable universe, life on Earth, and human beings. For the most part, we agree on concepts of what the cosmos and human beings are, but we have reached no consensus on what life is. It is easier to recognize life, in all its common forms, than it is to define it. In 1976, during NASA’s ...

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2. From Big Bang to Primordial Planet: Setting the Stage for the Origin of Life

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pp. 46-77

According to modern theory, life arose on the primitive Earth by a process of prebiotic chemical evolution. This process began with syntheses of organic chemical precursors of proteins, nucleic acids, and membranes in the early atmosphere and ocean, and ended with the emergence of life forms capable of self-replication—forms that could ...

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3. Formation of the Building Blocks of Life

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pp. 78-112

Along with his books, notes, letters, and papers, Charles Robert Darwin bequeathed two recipes to succeeding generations. The first, written in his wife’s recipe book, describes the way to boil rice: Add salt to the water and when boiling hot, stir in the rice. Keep it boiling for twelve minutes by the watch, then pour off the water and set ...

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4. From Building Blocks to the Polymers of Life

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pp. 113-139

Nucleic acids and proteins play a central role in life on Earth today. These polymeric biochemicals, composed, respectively, of nucleotides (figure 4.1a) and amino acids (figure 4.2a), provide the catalysis, the genetics, and some of the structure of all living systems. The genetic information in the nucleic acid DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is transcribed ...

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5. The Origin of Biological Information

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pp. 140-157

Organic chemists should have invented the computer scientists’ motto, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Proceeding step by step, purifying the product of one step before using it in the next: this is the orthodox approach to organic synthesis. Under carefully controlled conditions, it is just possible to constrain the chemistry of a pure input compound ...

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6. When Did Life Begin?

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pp. 158-179

We have a fairly clear picture of how life began. Sketched in broad strokes, a six-part scenario is plausible: (1) the genesis in distant stars of the chemical elements crucial to life; (2) the formation of the Solar System and accretion of planet Earth; (3) the nonbiologic buildup in Earth’s oceans of small, simple, organic monomers; (4) the linkage of ...

List of Contributors

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pp. 181-184


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pp. 185-204


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pp. 205-208

Production Notes

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p. 209-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780520928701
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520233911

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2002