The origin of life

Four theories concidered

As far as I know, there seems to be four possible explanations to the incontestable fact that life exist on earth. The first of them is based on the formation of amino-acids in prehistoric time, due to extreme conditions and chemical reactions in gaseous media on earths surface. (Miller-Urey experiment) The second is based on meteorite downfall, bringing microscopic amounts of amino-acids to earths surface. (Murchison meteorite) None of these explanations gives convincing answers to the origon of life. In both cases amino-acids are formed on earth, or has followed some types of meteorites. Amino-acids are essential for the production of proteins in already existing, living cells. But anyhow, they can’t create any life ! The third explanation is based on a theory that highly resistant bacteria, spores or virus from the great universum has come into our atmosphere and infected it. Such particles would represent a kind of life, but their prehistoric existence can naturally not be proved. Surprisingly, bacteria has been found in earths crust, at several kilometers deep. Their “life existance” could have been for 3.9 billion years ago, and they followed a heavy bombardment of meteors on the inner planets in our system. (1) The fourth and last explanation is based on what is called panspermia. Small “seeds” of panspermia should exist all over in the universe, and have the ability to infect our atmosphere and bring in living particles of some kind. This theory was early accepted by well known physics like Berzelius, Kelvin, Helmholz and Arrehnius. Later on the british astrophysics Fred Hoyle (1915 – 2001) eagerly defended the pamspermia theory.

The Miller-Urey-experiment.
By the 1950’s, the scientists were in hot pursuit of the origin of life.


Around the world, the scientifis community was examining what kind of environment would be needed to allow life to begin. In 1953 Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey, working at the University of Chicago, conducted an experiment which would change the aproach of scientific investigation into the origin of life. Miller took molecules which were believed to represent the major components of early Earth’s atmosphere and put them into a closed system. The gases they used were methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2) and water (H2O). Next, he ran a continious electric current through the system to simulate lightning storms believed to be common on the early earth. Analysis of the experiment was done by chromotography. At the end of one week, Miller observed that much as 10-15 % of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids which are used to make proteins. Perhaps, most importantly, Miller’s experiment showed that organic compounds such as amino acids could be made easily under the conditions that scientists believed to be present on the early earth. This enormous finding inspired a multitude of experiments. Scientists became very optimistic that the question about the origin of life would be solved within a few decades. This has not been the case, however. A later wave of scepticism concerning Miller’s experiment showed up. (2)

The Murchinson meteorite
On 28 September 1969, near the town of Murchinson, Victoria in Australia, a bright fireball was observed to separate into three fragments before disappearing, leaving a cloud of smoke. About 30 seconds later, a tremor was heard. Many speciments were found over an area larger than 13 km2, with individual masses up to 7 kg, one weighing 680 g, broke through a roof and fell in hay. This stone, beeing of the petrologic type 2. is rich in carbon, and among the more chemically interresting meteorites. Over 100 amino acids has been identified in the meteorite, some of them basic components of life. (3)


Amino acids
These are organic acids with the formula NH2- CHR – COOH, where the side group R variates. Amino acids are the building blocks in proteins, beeing “hooked” together in long chains, beeing called peptides. We know there is several hundreds different amino acids, all given a name and a formula, but in a smart way. Group R in the formula indikate that this is Arginin, one of th most essential amino acids. An interresting thing with some amino acids is the fact that they can exist in two versions, a leftand a right-handed one. Amino acids produced nonbiologically would have no obvious reason to accumulate excess of either forms. Scientists have demonstrated that there are more left-handed structures than right-handed versions of certain amino acids in the Merchison meteorite, just like amino acids from Earth’s living cells.

Resistant bacteria, spores and virus
Astrobiologists are partiiculary interested in studying extremophiles of many organisms of this type are capable of surviving in enviroments similar to those known to exist on other planets. Some organisms have been shown to be resistant to conditions than previously recognized, and may be able to survive for very long periods of time. Probably even in deep space, hypothetically, could travel in a domant state between environments suitable for ongoing life. Some bacteria and animals have been found to thrive in oceanic hydrothermal vents above 100 ºC. A study revealed that a fraction of bacteria survived pulses up to 250ºC in vacuum, while similar heating at normal atmospheric pressure leads to the total sterilization of samples. Other bacteria can threive in strongly caustic environments , other at extreme pressure at 11 km under the ocean, while others survive in extremely dry, dessicating conditions, frigid cold, vacuum or acid environments.Survival in space is not limited to bacteria, lichens or archea. The animal


tardigrade, a microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented with eight legs, has proven to survive the vacuum in space. Recent experiments suggest that if bacteria were somehow sheltered from radiation of space, perhaps innside a thich meteoride or any icy comet, they could survive dormant for millions of years. A radioresistant bacteria (Deinoccus radiodurans) can survive high radiation levels. Spores are produced as part of normal life cycle of many plants, algea, fungi and some protazoans. These structures may be highly resistant to ultraviolet and gamma radiation, desiccation- temperature, starvation and chemical disinfectants. (4)

Panspermia is the hypothesis that “seeds” of life exist already all over the Universe, that life on Earth may have originated through these “seeds”, and that they may deliver or have delivered life to other habitable bodies. The idea of exogenis is a more limited hypotesis that proposes life on Earth was transferred from elsewhere in the Universe but makes no prediction aboput how widtespread it is. Sir Fred Hoyle (picture) and Chandra Wickramashinge (born 1939) were important proponents for the hypotehesis who further contended that lifeforms continue to enter the Earth’s atmosphere, and may be responsible for epidemics outbreaks, new diseases and the genetic novelty necessary for maceorevolution. Precambrium fossil record indicates that life appeared soon after the Earth was formed. This would imply that life appeared within several hundred million years when conditions became favourable. The oldest known fosslized stromatolites or bacterial aggregates are dated at 3.5 billion years old. (5) Skien, 12.january 2010 Kjell W. Tveten Rererences (1) (2)
Sky&Telescope, jan 2010


(3) (4) (5)


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful