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The Origins of Life

The Origins of Life

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Siobhan Leonard. Originally submitted for Biological and Biomedical Science at NUI Maynooth, with lecturer Davide Pisani in the category of Life Sciences
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards (Ireland) Competition by Siobhan Leonard. Originally submitted for Biological and Biomedical Science at NUI Maynooth, with lecturer Davide Pisani in the category of Life Sciences

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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03/13/2014

 
The Origins of Life
The Origin of the Earth
In order to fully comprehend the environment in which life originated it is necessary tostudy the formation of planets and the conditions present on the early Earth. After a seriesof supernova explosions the solar system formed 4.5672±0.0006 billion years ago, in adense cluster of the Milky Way (Amelin
et al.,
2002). Daniel
et al.
(2006) declare that theEarth and all planets develop in a precise way. Initially circumstellar dusts settle to themiddle plane of a disk. Following this, a series of collisions occur over millions of yearsresulting in the formation of planets. The moon was formed when the Earth was 40-50million years old as a result of a drastic collision. This led to a dramatic increase in thet
emperatures of the Earth and the formation of the oceans. At the time of the Earth’sdevelopment the strength of the sun’s light was very faint. Despite this, it was superior in its
provision of ultraviolet light, X-rays and solar wind, all of which contributed to the origins of life (Daniel
et al.
2006).According to Daniel
et al.
(2006), the current atmosphere on Earth is a secondary one. Theprimary atmosphere was a reducing atmosphere formed by capturing the gases of the solarnebula with the aid of gravity. It is believed that this atmosphere contained hydrogen,
helium, hydrides, CO, N₂ and H₂O. However, there is still uncertainty about this being its
original composition. This atmosphere would have disappeared with the impact that formedthe moon (McClendon, 1999). The secondary atmosphere then developed with the addition
of gasses released from within the solid Earth. These gasses included, CO₂, H₂O, H₂S, CH₄,CO, N₂ and NH₃ which were for the most part emitted by volcanoes.
 
 
The Origin of Organic Molecules
 According to McClendon (1999) there are three main places to look for the origins of organic molecules; extraterrestrial sources such as comets, the atmosphere of the primitiveEarth and the ocean. Meteorite and comet collisions have been shown to deliver nonbiological amino acids to the Earth (Zhoa and Bada, 1989). However, a greater amount of research has been developed in understanding how organic molecules develop from theatmosphere. It is now believed that heat originating from the sparks of lightning and coronadischarges, impact shocks and solar ultraviolet light reacted with the atmospheric gasses of the prebiotic Earth to form organic molecules.Much of the information about the reaction conditions on the primitive Earth has comefrom the studies of the oldest found terrestrial objects, the zircons (Ferris, 2006). Miller(1955) was one of the first to attempt to recreate the conditions of the primitive Earthwhich brought about the synthesis of organic molecules. He demonstrated how reducedcompounds can produce amino acids when exposed to a spark over a certain period of time.
Of these experiments the exposure of N₂, H₂, CO₂ and H₂O to a spark seemed the most
promising. These gasses are almost undoubtedly believed to have been present on theprimitive Earth. When exposed to a spark, a high yield of glycine is formed along withvarious smaller amounts of other amino acids.Recent studies have shown that by heating varying solutions of hydrogen cyanide (which isalso believed to have been present on the primitive Earth) dihydroxyfumaric acid isproduced (Kuhn, 2008).This reaction can involve autocatalytic cycles which can act as thestarting point for the reactions that form a multitude of biomolecules central to themanifestation of life, including amino acids and nucleotides.
 
Organic compounds synthesised from the primary atmosphere of the Earth or delivered toEarth via comets and meteorites would have eventually deposited into the oceans.Hydrothermal systems, which occur at zones beneath the ocean which are exposed tomagma, have also been found to be a potential source of organic compounds (Ferris, 1992)
The Beginnings of Life
According to Norris and Root-Bernstein (2009) living systems arose as a chemicalenvironment evolved in which every possible prebiotic compound that could be producedwas produced in every possible way. Life on Earth can be traced back to as far as 3.8 billionyears ago (McClendon, 1999). Life is generally believed to have originated at the shores of the ocean or at deep sea hydrothermal vents (Ulmschneider, 2003). This theory is wellestablished as amino acids, thiols, organic acids, and hydroxyl acids were undisputedlypresent in the oceans, whether formed by hydrothermal systems or delivered by othermeans. The complexity and distinctness of this environment is a fundamental driving forceto the emergence of life.One of the most important phases in the development of life is the transition from acollection of simple organic molecules to more substantial macromolecules that have theability to chemically alter their environment as well as store information vital for replication(Sayer, 2007). Much research has taken place in the hope of understanding the conditionswhich set about the origin of life, as a result multiple theories have developed.Nevertheless, the majority of these theories centre on one aspect, the formation of an RNA-like molecule.

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