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Williamson D.

BIOL 2000
Dr. H. Ratanyaka
Chapter 21 Summary: The Origin of Life
Life on earth is hypothesized to have begun with non-living matter by means of synthesis
of small organic molecules into larger organic macromolecules such as proteins and nucleic
acids. The interactions between these molecules eventually gave rise to things with the capacity
to replicate and undergo metabolic regulation. The descendants of these became the first cells
from which all current organisms are derived. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes followed in that order.
The eukaryotes diverged to create, marine invertebrates (arthropods), marine vertebrates (fish),
amphibians, vertebrates with appendages, reptiles, and then eventually birds and mammals. It is
understood that plants underwent a similarly long and branching evolutionary history.
Earths Early Chemicals
Scientists have determined that the Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old. The
atmosphere of Earth in its early days is likely to have been composed of CO2, H2O, CO, and N2,
and may have contained NH3, H2S, and CH4 with little to no O2. The chemical evolution
described in the introduction require the following conditions: an oxygen poor environment, a
readily available energy source, access to basic chemical compounds, and time. These
requirements are needed for the following reason: oxygen is too reactive and would have
interfered with the process, energy to form the molecular bonds required for producing materials,
and the chemicals are needed to be the foundation of the produced materials.
The organic materials that make up the basis of living organisms also originated from
somewhere. One model used to explain this is the prebiotic soup hypothesis which says that
they formed near the surface of the Earth. The concept was proposed in the 1920s be Russian
biochemist A.I. Oparin, and Scottish geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. In the 1950s, Biochemists
Stanley Miller and Harold Urey tested the theory by using a machine to mimic the atmospheric

conditions of early Earth and introduced electrical discharges to the environment as a source of
energy. The results did see the formation of organic molecules as did several similar experiments
that followed. Oparins theory has been considered plausible but more recent studies have found
that clay may be a more likely site for the synthesis of polymers from monomers to have
occurred due to its binding properties and the zinc and iron that contains.
Another model, the iron-sulfur world hypothesis, asserts that the organic precursors
were formed at hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean where the vents released hot water,
carbon monoxide, sulfides, iron, and nickel. Presently, such vents still release molecules that
sustain microbial marine life. This theory was also tested and the resulted supported the
possibility that organic precursors may have originated at these vents.
Early Cell Development
Scientists have attempted to explain the synthesis of polymers into cells by creating and
studying probionts. They are produced by abiotic materials and perform several essential life
functions. Some probionts called microspheres, are capable of producing electrical potentials
across their surfaces and respond to osmotic pressure.
Though these probionts show the potential for organic aggregates to perform life
functions, how full cells developed from there is still largely unknown. One hypothesis about this
is the metabolism first hypothesis, which follows these steps: 1. Formation of a closed system
of chemical reactions that is separated from the outside environment. 2. Coupling of an energy
source to make it self-sustaining. 3. Increase in organization. 4. Growth and reproduction.
DNA and RNA are both self-replicating and can bind to clay. Many scientists believe that
the RNA came first and that it was the first informational molecule in to begin the evolution of
self-replicating cells. This is the theory of the RNA world model. It is believed that ribosomes
may have replicated in the places where life originated. In vitro evolution experiments show
this to be possible by selectively breeding RNA molecules that effectively catalyze certain
reactions. It is likely that DNA and proteins evolved from RNA and then it became a catalytic
It is unknown when the first true cells actually appeared and it is still heavily debated.
Microfossils (microscopic remains of life) have been found all over the world and imply that life

had existed at for at least 3.3-3.5 billion years. However many scientists claim that these findings
are the results of geological processes. Another type of fossil called stromatolites, show that
early cells were prokaryotes.
It is likely that early cells were heterotrophic and fed on the naturally occurring organic
material in the environment through anaerobic fermentation. When these materials became
scarce, the few photosynthetic cells likely grew in number with the new advantage by using the
hydrogen from H2S to reduce CO2 into glucose. Cyanobacteria were the first to use water as a
hydrogen source which gave it an advantage on a water-rich Earth. This is how oxygen levels
increased in the early atmosphere. Photosynthetic autotrophs are estimated to be 3.5 billion years
old so heterotrophic cells likely appeared earlier.
The resulting increase in oxygen allowed for organisms to perform aerobic respiration
which produces far more energy than anaerobic. This made those organisms more fit for survival
in an increasingly oxygenated environment. The introduction of aerobic respiration released CO2
as a waste product which led the circulation of carbon in the biosphere. The increasing oxygen
level also led to the creation of the ozone layer which blocked some of the suns ultraviolet rays
and allowed organisms to move onto land without harmful levels of solar radiation.
Eukaryotes started to appear in the fossil record about 2.2 billion years ago and were
likely present before that as evidenced by some fossilized steranes in Australia from 2.7 billion
years ago. It has been proposed that serial endosymbiosis yielded eukaryotes from prokaryotes
by the aggregation of formerly free living prokaryotes inside of other prokaryotes. The smaller
prokaryotes reproduced inside of the host prokaryote and eventually lost the ability to survive
individually while the host gained the benefits of mitochondria and the use of CO2 to produce
necessary organic molecules. Serial endosymbiosis is supported by the self-contained genetic
material in chloroplasts and mitochondria and the protein synthesis abilities that they possess.
Periods of Life

Different periods of life can be identified by using the 5 major layers (and its associated
subdivisions) of Earths crust and the fossils they contain to distinguish between different time
units of time that are often characterized by certain types of fossils. The largest units of time are
called eons which subdivide into eras, then periods, then epochs. The first eon in which life
originated, is the Archaean eon, between 4 billion and 2.5 billion years ago. The layers from the
eon contain microfossils of cyanobacteria. The Proterozoic eon spans from 2.5 billion to 541
million years ago. The first eukaryotic cells appear here at 2.2 billion years ago. Multicellular
organisms had appeared by the end of this eon in the Ediacaran period from 635 million to 541
million years ago.
The Paleozoic era lasted from 541million to 252 million years ago and consists of 6
periods. First is the Cambrian period which is extremely fossil rich. The sudden appearance of
many species garnered this period the moniker of the Cambrian radiation. It contain fossil from
every current phylum and many phyla that are now extinct. The reason for this influx is unknown
but many scientists propose that it is due to the increase in oxygen levels to support larger
organisms. In the Ordovician period, many continents were covered by shallow seas populated
by giant cephalopods, coral reefs, and small jawless armored bony fish. In the Silurian period,
the jawless fishes diversified and the first jawed fishes appeared. Terrestrial plants and air
breathing animals (in the form of arthropods) also surfaced during this period. The Devonian
period saw a radiation of jawed fish to support predation. The biggest deposits show sharks,
lobe-finned fishes, and ray-finned fishes. It also contains a transition phase between fish and
four-legged vertebrates (tetrapods). Vascular plants also diversified here and produced all major
plant groups aside from flowering plants. The Carboniferous period diversified the
gymnosperms and gave rise to the first amphibians and 2 lines of reptiles. During the Permian

period, reptiles took the place of amphibians as the dominant carnivorous and herbivorous
terrestrial inhabitants. Seed plants also diversified along with cone-bearing conifers, cycads
(fernlike leaves), and ginkgoes (fan-shaped leaves). At the end of the Paleozoic era, a mass
extinction occurred that eliminated 90% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial vertebrae. This is
presumed to be the result of a major catastrophic event.
The Mesozoic era lasted from 252 million to 66 million years ago. It houses the Triassic,
Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. Fossil from the era are seen all over the world. During the
Triassic period, reptiles heavily diversified in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
Theraspids and thecodonts on land and plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs in the water. Flying reptiles
also diversified here. The first mammals also appeared in this period. The Jurassic and
Cretaceous periods saw the appearance of crocodiles, lizards, snakes and birds while the
dinosaurs diversified across several adaptive zones. Dinosaurs are divided into saurischians
(carnivorous) and ornithischians (Herbivorous) and are identified by the direction of the pubis in
the hip bone. At the end of the Cretaceous period, many species went extinct most likely at the
hands of another catastrophic event.
The Cenozoic era spans from 66 million years ago to the present. This era sees the
diversification of mammals, birds, insects, and flowering plants in large numbers. Its divided
into the Paleogene (43 million years), Neogene (20.4 million years), and Quaternary (2.6
million years) periods. The Paleogene period contains the Paleocene (radiation of primitive
mammals), Eocene (formation of all modern orders), and Oligocene (modern mammal families)
epochs. Neogene period contains the Miocene (human ancestors) and Pliocene (large
mammals) epochs. Quaternary period contains the Pleistocene (ice ages) and Holocene