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He hypothesized that this mixture resembled the atmosphere of the early earth. The mixture was kept circulating by continuously boiling and then condensing the water.
The gases passed through a chamber containing two electrodes with a spark passing between them.
At the end of a week, Miller used paper chromatography to show that the flask now contained several amino acids as well as some other organic molecules.
However, it is now thought that the atmosphere of the early earth was not rich in methane and ammonia — essential ingredients in Miller's experiments.In the years since Miller's work, many variants of his procedure have been tried. Virtually all the small molecules that are associated with life have been formed:
|Representative amino acids found in the Murchison meteorite. Six of the amino acids (blue) are found in all living things, but the others (yellow) are not normally found in living matter here on earth. The same amino acids are produced in discharge experiments like Miller's.|
The question is: were these molecules simply terrestrial contaminants that got into the meteorite after it fell to earth?Probably not:
This meteorite arrived here from Mars. It contained a variety of organic molecules.
Furthermore, there is evidence that its interior never rose about 40° C during its fiery trip through the earth's atmosphere. Live bacteria could easily survive such a trip.
|Link to a discussion of the possibility of life on Mars and more on the ALH84001 meteorite.|
Whether or not the molecules that formed terrestrial life arrived here from space, there is little doubt that organic matter continuously rains down on the earth (estimated at 30 tons per day).
Researchers in the Czech Republic reported in 2014 that they had succeeded in the abiotic synthesis of adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and uracil (U) — the four bases found in RNA (an RNA beginning?) and three of the four found in DNA. They achieved this by bombarding a mixture of formamide and clay with powerful laser pulses that mimicked the temperature and pressure expected when a large meteorite strikes the earth.
Formamide is a simple substance, CH3NO, thought to have been abundant on the early earth and containing the four elements fundamental to all life.
Another problem is how polymers — the basis of life itself — could be assembled.
|Link to a discussion of enantiomers.|
This has led to a theory that early polymers were assembled on solid, mineral surfaces that protected them from degradation, and in the laboratory polypeptides and polynucleotides (RNA molecules) containing about ~50 units have been synthesized on mineral (e.g., clay) surfaces.
|Link to a discussion of ribozymes.|
While no ribozyme in nature has yet been found that can replicate itself, ribozymes have been synthesized in the laboratory that can catalyze the assembly of short oligonucleotides into exact complements of themselves. The ribozyme serves as both
(The figure is based on the work of Green and Szostak, Science 258:1910, 1992.)In principal, the minimal functions of life might have begun with RNA and only later did
To function, the machinery of life must be separated from its surroundings — some form of extracellular fluid (ECF). This function is provided by the plasma membrane.
Today's plasma membranes are made of a double layer of phospholipids. They are only permeable to small, uncharged molecules like H2O, CO2, and O2. Specialized transmembrane transporters are needed for ions, hydrophilic, and charged organic molecules (e.g., amino acids and nucleotides) to pass into and out of the cell.
However, the same Szostak lab that produced the finding described above reported in the 3 July 2008 issue of Nature that fatty acids, fatty alcohols, and monoglycerides — all molecules that can be synthesized under prebiotic conditions — can also form lipid bilayers and these can spontaneously assemble into enclosed vesicles.Unlike phospholipid vesicles, these
These workers loaded their synthetic vesicles with a short single strand of deoxycytidine (dC) structured to provide a template for its replication. When the vesicles were placed in a medium containing (chemically modified) dG, these nucleotides entered the vesicles and assembled into a strand of Gs complementary to the template strand of Cs.
Here, then, is a simple system that is a plausible model for the creation of the first cells from the primeval "soup" of organic molecules.
This transition is probably the easiest to understand.
Several colonial flagellated green algae provide a clue. These species are called colonial because they are made up simply of clusters of independent cells. If a single cell of Gonium, Pandorina, or Eudorina is isolated from the rest of the colony, it will swim away looking quite like a Chlamydomonas cell. Then, as it undergoes mitosis, it will form a new colony with the characteristic number of cells in that colony.
(The figures are not drawn to scale. Their sizes range from Chlamydomonas which is about 10 µm in diameter — little larger than a human red blood cell — to Volvox whose sphere is some 350 µm in diameter — visible to the naked eye.)
The situation in Pleodorina and Volvox is different. In these organisms, some of the cells of the colony (most in Volvox) are not able to live independently. If a nonreproductive cell is isolated from a Volvox colony, it will fail to reproduce itself by mitosis and eventually will die. What has happened? In some way, as yet unclear, Volvox has crossed the line separating simple colonial organisms from truly multicellular ones. Unlike Gonium, Volvox cannot be considered simply a colony of individual cells. It is a single organism whose cells have lost their ability to live independently. If a sufficient number of them become damaged, the entire sphere of cells will die.
What has Volvox gained? In giving up their independence, the cells of Volvox have become specialists. No longer does every cell carry out all of life's functions (as in colonial forms); instead certain cells specialize to carry out certain functions while leaving other functions to other specialists. In Volvox this process goes no further than having certain cells specialize for reproduction while others, unable to reproduce themselves, fulfill the needs for photosynthesis and locomotion.
In more complex multicellular organisms, the degree of specialization is carried much further. Each cell has one or two precise functions to carry out. It depends on other cells to carry out all the other functions needed to maintain the life of the organism and thus its own.
The specialization and division of labor among cells is the outcome of their history of differentiation. One of the great problems in biology is how differentiation arises among cells, all of which having arisen by mitosis, share the same genes. Link to a discussion of the solution.
The genomes of both Chlamydomonas and Volvox have been sequenced. Although one is unicellular, the other multicellular, they have not only about the same number of protein-encoding genes (14,516 in Chlamydomonas, 14,520 in Volvox) but most of these are homologous. Volvox has only 58 genes that have no relatives in Chlamydomonas and even fewer unique mRNAs.At one time, many of us would have expected that a multicellular organism like Volvox with its differentiated cells and complex life cycle would have had many more genes than a single-celled organism like Chlamydomonas. But that turns out not to be the case.
How to explain this apparent paradox? My guess is that just as we have seen in the evolution of animals [Examples], we are seeing here that the evolution of organismic complexity is not so much a matter of the evolution of new genes but rather the evolution of changes in the control elements (promoters and enhancers) that dictate how and where the basic tool kit of eukaryotic genes will be expressed .
The evidence is compelling that all these organisms are close relatives; that is, belong to the same clade. They illustrate how colonial forms could arise from unicellular ones and multicellular forms from colonial ones.
When I headed off to college (in 1949), I wrote an essay speculating on the possibility that some day we would be able to create a living organism from nonliving ingredients. By the time I finished my formal studies in biology — having learned of the incredible complexity of even the simplest organism — I concluded that such a feat could never be accomplished.
Now I'm not so sure.
Several recent advances suggest that we may be getting close to creating life. (But note that these examples represent laboratory manipulations that do not necessarily reflect what may have happened when life first appeared.)
In 2008, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) reported (in Science 29 February 2008) that they had succeeded in synthesizing a complete bacterial chromosome — containing 582,970 base pairs — starting from single deoxynucleotides. The entire sequence of the genome of Mycoplasma genitalium was already known [Link]. Using this information, they synthesized some 10,000 short oligonucleotides (each about 50 bp long) representing the entire genitalium genome and then — step by step — assembled these into longer and longer fragments until finally they had made the entire circular DNA molecule that is the genome.
Could this be placed in the cytoplasm of a living cell and run it?
The same team showed in the previous year (see Science 3 August 2007) that they could insert an entire chromosome from one species of mycoplasma into the cytoplasm of a related species and, in due course, the recipient lost its own chromosome (perhaps destroyed by restriction enzymes encoded by the donor chromosome) and began expressing the phenotype of the donor. In short, they had changed one species into another. But the donor chromosome was made by the donor bacterium, not synthesized in the laboratory. However, there should be no serious obstacle to achieving the same genome transplantation with a chemically-synthesized chromosome.
They've done it! The same team reported on 20 May 2010 in the online Science Express that they had successfully transplanted a completely synthetic genome — based on that of Mycoplasma mycoides — into the related species Mycoplasma capricolum. The recipient strain grew well and soon acquired the phenotype of the M. mycoides donor.
In the 4 April 2014 issue of Science (Annaluru, N. et al.), a large group of researchers — including many undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University — reported that they had successfully replaced the natural chromosome 3 in Saccharomyces cerevisiae (which has 16 chromosomes) with a totally-synthetic chromosome.
The work continues:
In the 10 March 2017 issue of Science, the same team now reports the synthesis of five more yeast chromosome as well as an additional half chromosome. Each of these works when it replaces the wild-type chromosome. Remarkably, even when substituting 2 or 3 of their synthetic chromosomes in a single cell, the cell remains viable carrying out its normal functions.