First life: The search for the first replicator
By MICHAEL MARSHALL - NEW SCIENTIST
Added: Mon, 15 Aug 2011 20:23:57 UTC
Life must have begun with a simple molecule that could reproduce itself – and now we think we know how to make one
4 BILLION years before present: the surface of a newly formed planet around a medium-sized star is beginning to cool down. It's a violent place, bombarded by meteorites and riven by volcanic eruptions, with an atmosphere full of toxic gases. But almost as soon as water begins to form pools and oceans on its surface, something extraordinary happens. A molecule, or perhaps a set of molecules, capable of replicating itself arises.
This was the dawn of evolution. Once the first self-replicating entities appeared, natural selection kicked in, favouring any offspring with variations that made them better at replicating themselves. Soon the first simple cells appeared. The rest is prehistory.
Billions of years later, some of the descendants of those first cells evolved into organisms intelligent enough to wonder what their very earliest ancestor was like. What molecule started it all?
As far back as the 1960s, a few of those intelligent organisms began to suspect that the first self-replicating molecules were made of RNA, a close cousin of DNA. This idea has always had a huge problem, though - there was no known way by which RNA molecules could have formed on the primordial Earth. And if RNA molecules couldn't form spontaneously, how could self-replicating RNA molecules arise? Did some other replicator come first? If so, what was it? The answer is finally beginning to emerge.
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