In the natural sciences, abiogenesis, or origin of life, is the study of how life on Earth emerged from inanimate organic and inorganic molecules. Scientific research theorizes that abiogenesis occurred sometime between 4.4 and 2.7 billion years ago, when the ratio of stable isotopes of carbon (12C and 13C), iron (56Fe, 57Fe, and 58Fe) and sulfur (32S, 33S, 34S, and 36S) points to a biogenic origin of minerals and sediments and molecular biomarkers indicate photosynthesis.
Abiogenesis is a limited field of research despite its profound impact on biology and human understanding of the natural world. Progress in this field is generally slow and sporadic. Several hypotheses have been proposed, most notably the iron-sulfur world theory (metabolism first) and the RNA world hypothesis (genetics first).
Until the early 19th century people frequently believed in spontaneous generation of life from non-living matter.
Classical notions of abiogenesis, now more precisely known as spontaneous generation, held that complex, living organisms are generated by decaying organic substances; according to Aristotle it was a readily observable truth that aphids arise from the dew which falls on plants, fleas from putrid matter, mice from dirty hay, crocodiles from rotting logs at the bottom of bodies of water, and so forth.
In the 17th century such assumptions started to be questioned; such as that by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, subtitled Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and Commonly Presumed Truths, of 1646, an attack on false beliefs and "vulgar errors." His conclusions were not widely accepted, e.g. his contemporary, Alexander Ross wrote: "To question this (i.e., spontaneous generation) is to question reason, sense and experience. If he doubts of this let him go to Egypt, and there he will find the fields swarming with mice, begot of the mud of Nylus, to the great calamity of the inhabitants.
In 1546 the physician Girolamo Fracastoro theorized that epidemic diseases were caused by tiny, invisible particles or "spores", which might not be living creatures, but this was not widely accepted. Next, Robert Hooke published the first drawings of a microorganism in 1665. He is also credited for naming the cell which he discovered while observing cork samples.
Then in 1676 Anthony van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms that, based on his drawings and descriptions are thought to have been protozoa and bacteria. This sparked a renewal in interest in the microscopic world.
The first step was taken by the Italian Francesco Redi, who, in 1668, proved that no maggots appeared in meat when flies were prevented from laying eggs. From the 17th century onwards it was gradually shown that, at least in the case of all the higher and readily visible organisms, the previous sentiment regarding spontaneous generation was false. The alternative seemed to be omne vivum ex ovo: that every living thing came from a pre-existing living thing (literally, every living thing from an egg).
In 1768 Lazzaro Spallanzani proved that microbes came from the air, and could be killed by boiling. Yet it was not until 1861 that Louis Pasteur performed a series of careful experiments which proved that organisms such as bacteria and fungi do not appear in nutrient rich media of their own accord in non-living material, and which supported cell theory.
By the middle of the 19th century Pasteur and other scientists discovered the theory of Biogenesis by demonstrating that living organisms do not arise spontaneously from non-living matter. In a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker on February 1, 1871, Charles Darwin made the suggestion that the original spark of life may have begun in a "warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc. present, so that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes". He went on to explain that "at the present day such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed, which would not have been the case before living creatures were formed. In other words, the presence of life itself makes the search for the origin of life dependent on the sterile conditions of the laboratory.
No real progress was made until 1924 when Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin reasoned that atmospheric oxygen prevented the synthesis of the organic molecules that are the necessary building blocks for the evolution of life. In his The Origin of Life, Oparin argued that a "primeval soup" of organic molecules could be created in an oxygen-less atmosphere through the action of sunlight. These would combine in ever-more complex fashions until they formed coacervate droplets. These droplets would "grow" by fusion with other droplets, and "reproduce" through fission into daughter droplets, and so have a primitive metabolism in which those factors which promote "cell integrity" survive, those that do not become extinct. Many modern theories of the origin of life still take Oparin's ideas as a starting point. Around the same time J. B. S. Haldane also suggested that the earth's pre-biotic oceans – very different from their modern counterparts – would have formed a "hot dilute soup" in which organic compounds, the building blocks of life, could have formed. This idea was called biopoiesis or biopoesis, the process of living matter evolving from self-replicating but nonliving molecules.
Despite this, the Hadean environment was one highly hazardous to life. Frequent collisions with large objects, up to 500 kilometres in diameter, would have been sufficient to vaporise the ocean within a few months of impact, with hot steam mixed with rock vapour leading to high altitude clouds completely covering the planet. After a few months the height of these clouds would have begun to decrease but the cloud base would still have been elevated for about the next thousand years. After that, it would have begun to rain at low altitude. For another two thousand years rains would slowly have drawn down the height of the clouds, returning the oceans to their original depth only 3,000 years after the impact event.
The possible Late Heavy Bombardment potentially caused by the movements in position of the Gaseous Giant planets, that pockmarked the moon and other inner planets (Mercury, Mars, and presumably Earth and Venus) between 3.8 and 4.1 billion years ago, would likely have sterilised the planet had life evolved by that time.
Examining the time interval that could have existed between such devastating environmental events, the interval in time when life might first have come into existence can be found for different early environments. The study by Maher and Stephenson shows that if the deep marine hydrothermal setting provides a suitable site for the origin of life, abiogenesis could have happened as early as 4000 to 4200 Myr ago, whereas if it occurred at the surface of the earth abiogenesis could only have occurred between 3700 and 4000 Myr.
Other research suggests a colder start to life. Work by Leslie Orgel and colleagues on the synthesis of purines has shown that freezing temperatures are advantageous, due to the concentrating effect for key precursors such as HCN. Research by Stanley Miller and colleagues suggested that while adenine and guanine require freezing conditions for synthesis, cytosine and uracil may require boiling temperatures Based on this research Miller suggested a beginning of life involving freezing conditions and exploding meteorites. A new article in Discover Magazine points to research by the Miller group indicating the formation of seven different amino acids and 11 types of nucleobases in ice when ammonia and cyanide were left in a freezer from 1972–1997. This article also describes research by Hauke Trinks showing the formation of RNA molecules 400 bases long under freezing conditions using an RNA template, a single-strand chain of RNA that guides the formation of a new strand of RNA. As that new RNA strand grows, it adheres to the template. The explanation given for the unusual speed of these reactions at such a low temperature is eutectic freezing. As an ice crystal forms, it stays pure: only molecules of water join the growing crystal, while impurities like salt or cyanide are excluded. These impurities become crowded in microscopic pockets of liquid within the ice, and this crowding causes the molecules to collide more often.
Evidence of the early appearance of life comes from the Isua supercrustal belt in Western Greenland and from similar formations in the nearby Akilia Islands. Carbon entering into rock formations has a concentration of elemental δ13C of about −5.5, where because of a preferential biotic uptake of 12C, biomass has a δ13C of between −20 and −30. These isotopic fingerprints are preserved in the sediments, and Mojzis has used this technique to suggest that life existed on the planet already by 3.85 billion years ago. Lazcano and Miller (1994) suggest that the rapidity of the evolution of life is dictated by the rate of recirculating water through mid-ocean submarine vents. Complete recirculation takes 10 million years, thus any organic compounds produced by then would be altered or destroyed by temperatures exceeding 300 °C. They estimate that the development of a 100 kilobase genome of a DNA/protein primitive heterotroph into a 7000 gene filamentous cyanobacterium would have required only 7 million years.
The origin of the basic biomolecules, while not settled, is less controversial than the significance and order of steps 2 and 3. The basic chemicals from which life is thought to have formed are:
As of 2008, no one has yet synthesized a "protocell" using basic components which would have the necessary properties of life (the so-called "bottom-up-approach"). Without such a proof-of-principle, explanations have tended to be short on specifics. However, some researchers are working in this field, notably Steen Rasmussen at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Jack Szostak at Harvard University. Others have argued that a "top-down approach" is more feasible. One such approach, attempted by Craig Venter and others at The Institute for Genomic Research, involves engineering existing prokaryotic cells with progressively fewer genes, attempting to discern at which point the most minimal requirements for life were reached. The biologist John Desmond Bernal, coined the term Biopoesis for this process, and suggested that there were a number of clearly defined "stages" that could be recognised in explaining the origin of life.
Bernal suggested that evolution may have commenced early, some time between Stage 1 and 2.
Recently estimates of these sources suggest that the heavy bombardment before 3.5 Gyr ago within the early atmosphere made available quantities of organics comparable to those produced by other energy sources.
Simple organic molecules are, of course, a long way from a fully functional self-replicating life form. But in an environment with no pre-existing life these molecules may have accumulated and provided a rich environment for chemical evolution ("soup theory"). On the other hand, the spontaneous formation of complex polymers from abiotically generated monomers under these conditions is not at all a straightforward process. Besides the necessary basic organic monomers, compounds that would have prohibited the formation of polymers were formed in high concentration during the experiments.
It can be argued that the most crucial challenge unanswered by this theory is how the relatively simple organic building blocks polymerise and form more complex structures, interacting in consistent ways to form a protocell. For example, in an aqueous environment hydrolysis of oligomers/polymers into their constituent monomers would be favored over the condensation of individual monomers into polymers. Also, the Miller experiment produces many substances that would undergo cross-reactions with the amino acids or terminate the peptide chain.
The deep sea vent, or hydrothermal vent, theory for the origin of life on Earth posits that life may have begun at submarine hydrothermal vents, where hydrogen-rich fluids emerge from below the sea floor and interface with carbon dioxide-rich ocean water. Sustained chemical energy in such systems is derived from redox reactions, in which electron donors, such as molecular hydrogen, react with electron acceptors, such as carbon dioxide (see iron-sulfur world theory).
In a hypercycle, the information storing system (possibly RNA) produces an enzyme, which catalyzes the formation of another information system, in sequence until the product of the last aids in the formation of the first information system. Mathematically treated, hypercycles could create quasispecies, which through natural selection entered into a form of Darwinian evolution. A boost to hypercycle theory was the discovery that RNA, in certain circumstances forms itself into ribozymes, capable of catalyzing their own chemical reactions. However, these reactions are limited to self-excisions (in which a longer RNA molecule becomes shorter), and much rarer small additions that are incapable of coding for any useful protein. The hypercycle theory is further degraded since the hypothetical RNA would require the existence of complex biochemicals such as nucleotides which are not formed under the conditions proposed by the Miller-Urey experiment.
Another possible answer to this polymerization conundrum was provided in 1980s by Günter Wächtershäuser, in his iron-sulfur world theory. In this theory, he postulated the evolution of (bio)chemical pathways as fundamentals of the evolution of life. Moreover, he presented a consistent system of tracing today's biochemistry back to ancestral reactions that provide alternative pathways to the synthesis of organic building blocks from simple gaseous compounds.
In contrast to the classical Miller experiments, which depend on external sources of energy (such as simulated lightning or UV irradiation), "Wächtershäuser systems" come with a built-in source of energy, sulfides of iron and other minerals (e.g. pyrite). The energy released from redox reactions of these metal sulfides is not only available for the synthesis of organic molecules, but also for the formation of oligomers and polymers. It is therefore hypothesized that such systems may be able to evolve into autocatalytic sets of self-replicating, metabolically active entities that would predate the life forms known today.
The experiment produced a relatively small yield of dipeptides (0.4% to 12.4%) and a smaller yield of tripeptides (0.10%) but the authors also noted that: "under these same conditions dipeptides hydrolysed rapidly.
John Parnell of the University of Aberdeen suggests that such a process could provide part of the "crucible of life" on any early wet rocky planet, so long as the planet is large enough to have generated a system of plate tectonics which brings radioactive minerals to the surface. As the early Earth is believed to have many smaller "platelets" it would provide a suitable environment for such processes.
While features of self-organization and self-replication are often considered the hallmark of living systems, there are many instances of abiotic molecules exhibiting such characteristics under proper conditions. For example Martin and Russel show that physical compartmentation by cell membranes from the environment and self-organization of self-contained redox reactions are the most conserved attributes of living things, and they argue therefore that inorganic matter with such attributes would be life's most likely last common ancestor.
The RNA world hypothesis suggests that relatively short RNA molecules could have spontaneously formed that were capable of catalyzing their own continuing replication. It is difficult to gauge the probability of this formation. A number of theories of modes of formation have been put forward. Early cell membranes could have formed spontaneously from proteinoids, protein-like molecules that are produced when amino acid solutions are heated – when present at the correct concentration in aqueous solution, these form microspheres which are observed to behave similarly to membrane-enclosed compartments. Other possibilities include systems of chemical reactions taking place within clay substrates or on the surface of pyrite rocks. Factors supportive of an important role for RNA in early life include its ability to act both to store information and catalyse chemical reactions (as a ribozyme); its many important roles as an intermediate in the expression and maintenance of the genetic information (in the form of DNA) in modern organisms; and the ease of chemical synthesis of at least the components of the molecule under conditions approximating the early Earth. Relatively short RNA molecules which can duplicate others have been artificially produced in the lab.
Researchers have pointed out difficulties for the abiotic synthesis of nucleotides from cytosine and uracil. Cytosine has a half-life of 19 days at 100 °C and 17,000 years in freezing water. Larralde et al, say that "the generally accepted prebiotic synthesis of ribose, the formose reaction, yields numerous sugars without any selectivity. and they conclude that their "results suggest that the backbone of the first genetic material could not have contained ribose or other sugars because of their instability." The ester linkage of ribose and phosphoric acid in RNA is known to be prone to hydrolysis.
A slightly different version of this hypothesis is that a different type of nucleic acid, such as PNA, TNA or GNA, was the first one to emerge as a self-reproducing molecule, to be replaced by RNA only later.
One of the earliest incarnations of this idea was put forward in 1924 with Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin's notion of primitive self-replicating vesicles which predated the discovery of the structure of DNA. More recent variants in the 1980s and 1990s include Günter Wächtershäuser's iron-sulfur world theory and models introduced by Christian de Duve based on the chemistry of thioesters. More abstract and theoretical arguments for the plausibility of the emergence of metabolism without the presence of genes include a mathematical model introduced by Freeman Dyson in the early 1980s and Stuart Kauffman's notion of collectively autocatalytic sets, discussed later in that decade.
However, the idea that a closed metabolic cycle, such as the reductive citric acid cycle, could form spontaneously (proposed by Günter Wächtershäuser) remains debated. In an article entitled "Self-Organizing Biochemical Cycles", the late Leslie Orgel summarized his analysis of the proposal by stating, "There is at present no reason to expect that multistep cycles such as the reductive citric acid cycle will self-organize on the surface of FeS/FeS2 or some other mineral." It is possible that another type of metabolic pathway was used at the beginning of life. For example, instead of the reductive citric acid cycle, the "open" acetyl-CoA pathway (another one of the five recognised ways of carbon dioxide fixation in nature today) would be compatible with the idea of self-organisation on a metal sulfide surface. The key enzyme of this pathway, carbon monoxide dehydrogenase/acetyl-CoA synthase harbours mixed nickel-iron-sulfur clusters in its reaction centers and catalyses the formation of acetyl-CoA (which may be regarded as a modern form of acetyl-thiol) in a single step.
Amphiphiles are oily compounds containing a hydrophilic head on one or both ends of a hydrophobic molecule. Some amphiphiles have the tendency to spontaneously form membranes in water. A spherically closed membrane contains water and is a hypothetical precursor to the modern cell membrane. If a protein would increase the integrity of its parent bubble, that bubble had an advantage, and was placed at the top of the natural selection waiting list. Primitive reproduction can be envisioned when the bubbles burst, releasing the results of the experiment into the surrounding medium. Once enough of the 'right stuff' was released into the medium, the development of the first prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and multicellular organisms could be achieved.
Similarly, bubbles formed entirely out of protein-like molecules, called microspheres, will form spontaneously under the right conditions. But they are not a likely precursor to the modern cell membrane, as cell membranes are composed primarily of lipid compounds rather than amino-acid compounds (for types of membrane spheres associated with abiogenesis, see protobionts, micelle, coacervate).
A recent model by Fernando and Rowe suggests that the enclosure of an autocatalytic non-enzymatic metabolism within protocells may have been one way of avoiding the side-reaction problem that is typical of metabolism first models.
Cairns-Smith is a staunch critic of other models of chemical evolution. However, he admits, that like many models of the origin of life, his own also has its shortcomings (Horgan 1991).
In 2007, Kahr and colleagues reported their experiments to examine the idea that crystals can act as a source of transferable information, using crystals of potassium hydrogen phthalate. "Mother" crystals with imperfections were cleaved and used as seeds to grow "daughter" crystals from solution. They then examined the distribution of imperfections in the crystal system and found that the imperfections in the mother crystals were indeed reproduced in the daughters. The daughter crystals had many additional imperfections. For a gene-like behavior the additional imperfections should be much less than the parent ones, thus Kahr concludes that the crystals "were not faithful enough to store and transfer information form one generation to the next".
It is now reasonably well established that microbial life is plentiful at shallow depths in the Earth (up to five kilometers below the surface) in the form of extremophile archaea, rather than the better-known eubacteria (which live in more accessible conditions). It is claimed that discovery of microbial life below the surface of another body in our solar system would lend significant credence to this theory. Thomas Gold also asserted that a trickle of food from a deep, unreachable, source is needed for survival because life arising in a puddle of organic material is likely to consume all of its food and become extinct. Gold's theory is that that flow of food is due to out-gassing of primordial methane from the Earth's mantle; more conventional explanations of the food supply of deep microbes (away from sedimentary carbon compounds) is that the organisms subsist on hydrogen released by an interaction between water and (reduced) iron compounds in rocks
Organic compounds are relatively common in space, especially in the outer solar system where volatiles are not evaporated by solar heating. Comets are encrusted by outer layers of dark material, thought to be a tar-like substance composed of complex organic material formed from simple carbon compounds after reactions initiated mostly by irradiation by ultraviolet light. It is supposed that a rain of material from comets could have brought significant quantities of such complex organic molecules to Earth.
An alternative but related hypothesis, proposed to explain the presence of life on Earth so soon after the planet had cooled down, with apparently very little time for prebiotic evolution, is that life formed first on early Mars. Due to its smaller size Mars cooled before Earth (a difference of hundreds of millions of years), allowing prebiotic processes there while Earth was still too hot. Life was then transported to the cooled Earth when crustal material was blasted off Mars by asteroid and comet impacts. Mars continued to cool faster and eventually became hostile to the continued evolution or even existence of life (it lost its atmosphere due to low volcanism); Earth is following the same fate as Mars, but at a slower rate.
Neither hypothesis actually answers the question of how life first originated, but merely shifts it to another planet or a comet. However, the advantage of an extraterrestrial origin of primitive life is that life is not required to have evolved on each planet it occurs on, but rather in a single location, and then spread about the galaxy to other star systems via cometary and/or meteorite impact. Evidence to support the plausibility of the concept is scant, but it finds support in recent study of Martian meteorites found in Antarctica and in studies of extremophile microbes. Additional support comes from a recent discovery of a bacterial ecosytem whose energy source is radioactivity.
A recent experiment led by Jason Dworkin, subjected a frozen mixture of water, methanol, ammonia and carbon monoxide to UV radiation, mimicking conditions found in an extraterrestrial environment. This combination yielded large amounts of organic material that self-organised to form bubbles when immersed in water. Dworkin considered these bubbles to resemble cell membranes that enclose and concentrate the chemistry of life, separating their interior from the outside world.
The bubbles produced in these experiments were between 10 to 40 micrometers, or about the size of red blood cells. Remarkably, the bubbles fluoresced, or glowed, when exposed to UV light. Absorbing UV and converting it into visible light in this way was considered one possible way of providing energy to a primitive cell. If such bubbles played a role in the origin of life, the fluorescence could have been a precursor to primitive photosynthesis. Such fluorescence also provides the benefit of acting as a sunscreen, diffusing any damage that otherwise would be inflicted by UV radiation. Such a protective function would have been vital for life on the early Earth, since the ozone layer, which blocks out the sun's most destructive UV rays, did not form until after photosynthetic life began to produce oxygen.
Different forms of life may have appeared quasi-simultaneously in the early history of Earth. The other forms may be extinct, leaving distinctive fossils through their different biochemistry (e.g., using arsenic instead of phosphorus), survive as extremophiles, or simply be unnoticed through their being analogous to organisms of the current life tree. Hartman for example combines a number of theories together, by proposing that:
The first organisms were self-replicating iron-rich clays which fixed carbon dioxide into oxalic and other dicarboxylic acids. This system of replicating clays and their metabolic phenotype then evolved into the sulfide rich region of the hotspring acquiring the ability to fix nitrogen. Finally phosphate was incorporated into the evolving system which allowed the synthesis of nucleotides and phospholipids. If biosynthesis recapitulates biopoesis, then the synthesis of amino acids preceded the synthesis of the purine and pyrimidine bases. Furthermore the polymerization of the amino acid thioesters into polypeptides preceded the directed polymerization of amino acid esters by polynucleotides.