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CH2115 – A Brief History of Earth

4.5 Billion Years Ago – Formation of the Earth

The galaxy was created approximately five billion years ago, as the result of a supernova exploding.
This pushed heavy-element wreckage into a nearby cloud of hydrogen gas and interstellar dust.
This mixture grew out and through gravity a new star was born in its centre. The accretion disc
formed around this, eventually leading to the creation of the planets as it cooled.

Firstly elements like iron, silicon, magnesium, aluminium and oxygen froze out into small dust-size
grains which, due to gravity, would begin to collide together and form chunks, then boulders, and
eventually planetismals – objects large enough to exert their own gravity.
These began to then collide with each other and as their mass increased, so did the energy involved.
Once their size reached ~100km the collisions began to cause melting and vaporisation, allowing the
iron and rocks to arrange themselves. The denser iron settled in the centre with the lighter rock on
top, forming layers similar to the core and mantle of the modern Earth and other inner planets.
As the sun ignited (entering the T-Tauri phase) it blew away the majority of gases from the proto-
planetary disc. This allowed the solid objects to collect into a handful of larger, stable bodies in well-
spaced orbits. Earth was the third (counting outwards from the Sun) of these objects. It is believed
that the moon was formed around this time as a large planetismal, having collided with Earth, led to
the ejection of a large amount of the Earths mantle. Most of this was recaptured, the rest however
gathered and formed a stable orbit, the birth of the moon.

It is important to note that the very early Earth had no atmosphere able to filter UV-radiation, at this
stage life would be an impossibility.

4.2 Billion Years Ago – Formation of the Stable Hydrosphere

Upon formation the Earth had many gases trapped within itself. The early atmosphere was reductive
(CH4, NH3 and H2S) however the modern atmosphere is very oxidative (CO2, H2, H2O, SO2, O2).
It is believed that volcanoes, through a process known as degassing released the gases, including
carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen and (perhaps most importantly) water vapour.
Outgassing is not thought to be the only source of water vapour in the atmosphere, since the
numbers don’t ‘fit’, and it has been theorised that a large amount of the Earth’s water vapour could
have formed via collisions with left over planetismals and cometismals. As the Earth cooled (during
the Early Archean period) this water vapour could liquefy and form the oceans.

The water vapour, when photolysed, could also have allowed the formation of the Earth’s first small
amounts of o-zone. This is vital when considering the creation of life, as o-zone acts as the filter to
prevent harmful UV radiations from harming organisms on the surface of the Earth.

4.2→4.0 Billion Years Ago – Prebiotic Chemistry

There are several potential theories explaining the origins of chemistry (particularly the formation of
the basic units of life, proteins and fatty membranes);

 Deep sea vents

+ protected from harmful radiation by the water above
- doesn’t make chemical sense
R1 OH + NH2-R2 ⇋ R1 NH2-R2 + H2O This is a reversible reaction, in which
one of the products is water.
This could only be possible within
According to le Chatelier’s principle
‘inverted micelles’, essentially small
it would be impossible to maintain a
reactors which could prevent water
forwards reaction at any significant
interfering with the reaction

 In the atmosphere
+ the elements required for life can all be found in the skies
- closer to UV radiation and less protected
[again micelle structures could provide mobile reaction chambers, the oily layer on top of
the ocean forming bubbles lifted away by the wind]
+ in 1953 Miller and Urey showed that, using an artificial atmosphere similar to the
primordial atmosphere, lightening could provoke reactions between inorganic molecules to
form monomers
 Wächtershäuser’s hypothesis
+ presents a consistent system of tracing today’s biochemistry back to ancestral reactions
+ does not depend on an energy source outside of the reaction, instead the sulphides of iron
and other minerals provide the energy to not only form monomers but also for
polymerisation and the formation of oligomers.
+ this system is auto-catalytic
 The radioactive beach theory
+ claims that stronger tidal processes from a much closer moon could have concentrated
grains of uranium at the high-tide mark on primordial beaches
+ these grains could maintain natural nuclear reactions (such as in Gabon), providing
sufficient energy to form organic molecules such as amino acids and sugars from acetonitrile
found in the water. Monazite would release soluble phosphate into the regions between
sand-grains making it ‘biologically accessible’
+could also form part of the organo-metallic substances which would catalyse further
 In the cosmos
+ the biggest advantage to this theory is that it can explain why Earth is homochiral (all L-
amino acids and R-nucleic acid sugars) in the absence of a chiral source or catalyst
+ polarised light has been shown to destroy one enantiomer within the protoplanetary disk

Homochirality could also be explained by the β-decay of D-leucine in a racemic mixture and the
presence of 14C in larger amounts in early organic chemicals.

4.0→3.8 Billion Years Ago – An RNA World

It has been proposed that, before DNA existed, RNA was the primary information holder in early life-
forms. Due to the properties of RNA this is a considerably valid hypothesis

+RNA is known to form efficient catalysts and can, itself, act as an enzyme
+RNA can self-replicate
+RNA can catalyse the formation of peptide bonds
+RNA, as shown by its similarities, can withhold genetic information
- there are no known chemical pathways for the abiogenetic synthesis of nucleotides from
pyrimidine nucleobases cytosine and uracil under prebiotic conditions. It could be that they
contained different nucleobases.

3.6 Billion Years Ago – The First DNA Protein Life

Two important features of DNA lifeforms are ribosomes and ribonucleotide reductase (for the
conversion of RNA→DNA)


 Comprised of RNA and proteins

-note one of the properties of RNA is the catalysis of peptide bond formation
 The ribosomes in mitochondria are similar to those found in bacteria, despite prokaryotes
and eukaryotes having very different ribosomal structures, offering evidence for the
evolution of one into the other
 The ribosome translates mRNA into proteins by matching the equivalent amino acid with
each 3-base sequence (codon) of the mRNA

Ribonucleotide reductase

 Catalyses the formation of deoxyribonucleotides from ribonucleotides, these then go on to

form DNA (deoxyribonucleic acids)
 It also controls the amount of DNA synthesized, ensuring a maintained ratio of cell masses
during division

3.6 Billion Years Ago→Present Day – Diversification

The endosymbiotic theory proposes two lines of evolution;
-the evolution of mitochondria from aerobic bacteria living within their host cell
-the evolution of chloroplasts from endosymbiotic cyanobacteria

The evidence for this hypothesis is;

-both mitochondria and chloroplasts can arise only from pre-existing organelles, they cannot be
formed as the nuclear genes encode only some of the necessary proteins used to form them
-both have their own genome more closely resembling prokaryotes than eukaryotes
-they consist of a singular strand of circular DNA
-there are no associated histones
-both have their own protein-synthesising machinery which again more closely resembles that found
in prokaryotes than eukaryotes
-a lot of anti-biotics i.e. streptomycin, block protein synthesis in bacteria and also within
mitochondria and chloroplasts but not those same processes in the cytoplasm of eukaryotes

The phylogenetic tree is another method of displaying diversification which suggests 3 branches
separating from the earliest life-forms, supporting the concept of diversification and evolution.