The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth

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Life began on Earth at least 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, and it has been evolving ever since. At first, all living things on Earth were simple, single-celled organisms. Much later, the first multicellular organisms evolved, and after that, Earth's biodiversity greatly increased.
1. AST 309
part 2:
Extraterrestrial Life
The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth
2. Overview
• The formation of Earth
• Pre-biotic chemistry (Miller-Urey exp.)
• First evidence for early life
• The evolution of life
• Extreme life on Earth: lessons for astrobiology
3. A timeline for the very early history of the Earth
4. The formation of Earth:
The Earth formed over ~50 Myr via planetesimal accretion
5. Earth differentiation:
The iron "drops" follow gravity and
accumulate towards the core. Lighter
materials, such as silicate minerals,
migrate upwards in exchange. These
silicate-rich materials may well have
risen to the surface in molten form,
giving rise to an initial magma ocean
Early Earth heats up due to radio-
active decay, compression, and
impacts. Over time the temperature of
the planet interior rises towards the Fe-
melting line.
After the initial segregation into a central iron (+nickel) core and an outer
silicate shell, further differentiation occurred into an inner (solid) and outer
(liquid) core (a pressure effect: solid iron is more densely packed than liquid
iron), the mantel (Fe+Mg silicates) and the crust (K+Na silicates). Initially
large portions of the crust might have been molten - the so called magma
ocean. The latter would have cooled to form a layer of basaltic crust (such as
is present beneath the oceans today). Continental crust would have formed
later. It is probable that the Earth’s initial crust was remelted several times
due to impacts with large asteroids.
6. The formation of Earth:
Delivery of water by icy planetesimals and comets?
After condensation of water vapor produced the earth's oceans, thus
sweeping out the carbon dioxide and locking it up into rocks, our
atmosphere was mostly nitrogen.
7. Kaboom! The formation of the Moon:
Currently favored hypothesis:
Earth has a gigantic grazing
collision with a Mars-size
It explains the Moon’s lower density,
lack of iron and oxygen isotope ratios
that are identical to Earth’s (Apollo).
8. A timeline for the very early history of the Earth
9. In order to be able to find life outside our Earth, we have to
understand life in our own planet. The chemistry of life and the
different processes during the formation and evolution of the
Earth have played a crucial role.
Is life on Earth a very special thing ?
Can life spawn spontaneously elsewhere ?
Tiny zircons (zirconium silicate crystals) found in ancient stream deposits indicate that
Earth developed continents and water -- perhaps even oceans and environments in
which microbial life could emerge -- 4.3 billion to 4.4 billion years ago, remarkably soon
after our planet formed. The presence of water on the young Earth was confirmed when
the zircons were analyzed for oxygen isotopes and the telltale signature of rocks that
have been touched by water was found: an elevated ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16.
10. A timeline for the very early history of the Earth
11. How to understand an astrobiologist (or any
Monomer: usually a small molecule that can bind chemically to form a
polymer (amino acids are monomers)
Polymer: a macro-molecule composed of repeating structural units. Proteins
and nucleoacids (RNA & DNA) are polymers
Protein: a biochemical compound that facilitates a biological function
Encyme: are proteins that catalyze (e.g. increase rates) of chemical reactions
RNA: Ribonucleic acid, a macromolecule made of long chains of nucleotides (1
base, 1 sugar and a phosphate group). Single strand, can carry
genetic info.
DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid, double-helix shaped macromolecule made of
nucleotides. Carries genetic information.
13. The Miller-Urey experiment
In the 1930s, Oparin and Haldane independently suggested
that ultraviolet radiation from the sun or lightning discharges
caused the molecules of the primordial atmosphere to react to
form simple organic (carbon-containing) compounds. This
process was replicated in 1953 by Stanley Miller and Harold
Urey, who subjected a mixture of H2O, CH4, NH3, and H2 to an
electric discharge for about a week. The resulting solution
contained water-soluble organic compounds, including several
amino acids (which are components of proteins) and other
biochemically significant compounds.
Problem: The assumed atmospheric composition
The experiments only give large yields of interesting
organics (amino acids, nucleic acids, sugars) if the gas is
H-rich (highly reducing). If the early atmosphere was CO2
+ N2 (mildly reducing), as many suspect, the yields are
14. Atmosphere from
volcanic outgassing?
This would give atmosphere
rich in CO2, N2, and H2O.
Not the composition that
favors Miller-Urey synthesis.
15. Could the original atmosphere have been delivered to the Earth from
comets, asteroids, …? Perhaps then the composition would be H-rich.
What was the source of the early Earth’s atmosphere? Not necessarily “endogenous” (there from the
start). Outgassing from the crust due to volcanoes (top two), or planetesimal impact (lower left), or
comet vaporization (lower right)? The point here is that a major alternative is exogenous delivery of
organics by comets, asteroids, interplanetary dust…
16. Another alternative: irradiation of ices,
either extraterrestrial, or on a cold young Earth
Several groups have produced amino acids and other biologically-interesting molecules by
ultraviolet irradiation of ices meant to resemble what we think interstellar ices
are like. Munoz Caro et al. (2002) produced 16 amino acids this way. Hudson et al. (2008) et al.
recently showed that irradiation of ice with high-energy protons produces amino acids, without
any other gases present (I.e. doesn’t depend on having hydrogen-rich atmosphere.
The key compound in the ices: Nitriles. In these experiments, it was acetonitrile
You may remember it from the “amino acid-like” molecule discovered in the interstellar
medium: CH3CN. It is also detected in comets and in Titan’s atmosphere.
17. After condensation of water vapor produced the earth's oceans, thus
sweeping out the carbon dioxide and locking it up into rocks, our
atmosphere was mostly nitrogen.
18. Most amino acids have a mirror image (L and D):
• L and D both found in meteorites
• L only in organisms on the earth
why is D selected against?(*)
So now we have some amino acids (monomers) loosely mixed in the
oceans. Liquid medium is important:
• Protects molecules from UV photon disruption
• Ease of transport and Interaction
Next goal is to combine Monomers into Polymers (peptide chains)
(*) We believe that Earth life's "choice" of chirality was purely random, and
that if carbon-based life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, their chemistry
could theoretically have opposite chirality.
19. Which monomer? Which polymer?
Monomers (building blocks) polymerized into four types of polymers.
However, only two types seem crucial for primitive biological processes:
amino acids/proteins and nucleotides/nucleic acids
20. DNA-protein system: Too complex for first life
So which came first?
It is a temptation to think of “life" as a protein-
making gene system. But this could not have
been the origin of life. Not only is it far too
complex to have developed spontaneously, there
is a chicken-and-egg paradox:
No proteins without DNA to code for
them, but
No reason for DNA without proteins
to code for.
Could they somehow have developed simultaneously? This protein is bending
part of a DNA, something
DNA is too stiff to do on
After all, nearly every DNA and RNA in today’s life its own. There are
operates only in connection with protein enzymes: myriad other DNA-
protein-DNA interactions are the norm. protein interactions, e.g.
repair of DNA damage.
• The “chicken and the egg” problem is obvious: Neither DNA nor
protein has any function without the other. Yet their symbiosis is far
too complex to have arisen from “nothing.”
=> So what preceded the DNA/protein system?
21. What came before DNA and proteins?
Almost certainly: RNA
RNA looks a lot like DNA, but is single stranded. The
big difference is that RNA is a molecule that can carry
information like DNA, but can also fold itself into
complex three-dimensional shapes like proteins,
so RNAs can be their own enzymes (proteins).
Because RNA is ribonucleic acid, but can act like an
enzyme (protein), these primordial RNAs are called
“ribozymes” and are the most important candidate for
the origin of life. That is why we are learning about DNA!
When naturally occurring ribozymes were
discovered in present-day organisms (including humans),
The idea that there was once an “RNA world” became
easily the most plausible scenario for the transition to life.
22. Encapsulation: Prerequisite for RNA world?
The production of RNA polymers at fast enough rate is usually considered a
problem, but there are many ways to enhance it. One is to confine the reactants to
a compartment of some kind; a lipid vesicle, forerunner of today’s lipid membranes.
Prebiotic membranes (vesicles) are easy
23. What followed the RNA world?
How self-replicating RNA could have led to the DNA/protein world
24. But what preceeded RNA? How could an RNA be “alive”? Should we expect
the same on habitable exoplanets? How different could life be if the basic
polymer was not RNA? What if more bases, or more varied codons? What
are the chances that life would occur again if we could “play back the tape”?
The lesson we learned so far was that nearly everything that we see today in
living organisms is far too complex to have arisen spontaneously from some
lifeless polymers.
That there are two ancient kingdoms, the bacteria and archaea, or
that there are prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, or that organisms can be
classified according to their metabolic habits, are all interesting, but only shows
us that all of these are too complex: They are the products of hundreds of
millions of years of development and evolution.
We saw a glimmer of what might have come before in ribozymes.
25. A timeline for the very early history of the Earth
26. When did life begin?
Stromatolites: Bacterial colonies that used
Microfossils: Difficult! Controversial….
Isotope ratios: carbon-12 to carbon-13 abundance
is affected by metabolism in living things.
When organisms ingest carbon, they preferentially
use 12C over 13C. (14C is radioactive, and thus
won’t remain over a long time period.) Carbon with a
high ratio of 12C compared to 13C is therefore an
indicator of living processes. Carbon enriched in 12C
has been identified in rocks from Greenland dated at
3.85 billions of years ago. This is the earliest
evidence for life on Earth.
Best estimate: 3.5 to 4.0 Gyr ago
27. Establishing biological nature of fossils:
stromatolites (below), …
Stomatolites: Mats of
previous bacterial colonies
that harvested sunlight for
Stromatolites are a classic method for estimating when the Earth’s atmosphere
became oxygenated, and some think that the presence of stromatolites at such-
and-such an age shows the Earth’s atmosphere was oxygenated at that time.
[Problem: Now clearer that many mat-building bacteria are not aerobic
Oldest stromatolites are about 3 Gyr, but photosynthesis is so complex that
it could not have been available near the beginning of life.
28. Ancient microfossils:
The Earliest Trace of Life? This fossil from
Western Australia is 3.5 billion years old
and shows carbon traces that indicate
life. Its form is similar to that of modern
filamentous cyanobacteria (inset).
Science 8 March 2002 :
“Earliest Signs of Life Just
Oddly Shaped Crud?”
29. Where did life begin?
• Land?
Problem: No protection from intense UV,
or from sterilizing impacts.
Additional reason for excluding origin on land:
Hard to imagine life not in an aqueous solution.
• Ocean?
How to concentrate the molecules so they
polymerize in a reasonable time?
One possibility: Encapsulation of molecules in cell-like membrane.
• In tidepools or lagoons?
Evaporation concentrates monomers, but unfortunately exposes to UV.
• Hydrothermal deep-sea vents?
A present-day favorite.
30. The Hadean/Archean biological world
Prokaryotes: Most successful organisms on Earth. The only life for
over 2 Gyr, many still with us. Essentially infinite lifetime for
colonies. Note the complexity!
No organelles (eukaryotic cells only), smaller genome, no sex, but
other abilities like extreme adaptation (see “extremophiles”), and
horizontal gene transfer.
31. Prokaryote vs. Eukaryote:
32. So what does the geological record show?
Multicellular life (Cambrian explosion)
Earliest confirmed microfossil
Oldest purported microfossils 3.5 Gyr
Oldest isotopic evidence for life 3.8 Gyr
Oldest zircons 4.2 Gyr
Earth forms
33. A timeline for the very early history of the Earth
34. Life on Earth
35. The Cambrian
• ~ 530 Myrs ago, fossil record of animals and other
complex organisms “explodes”
• Major diversification of life on Earth
• Explosion took many millions of years (organisms before
580 Myrs were much simpler
• Several hypotheses:
– Increased oxygen levels
– Earth was recovering from a Snowball event
– Evolution of eyes?
– It wasn’t an explosion at all!
36. Life on Earth:
• Earth forms over a time of 50 Myr more than 4.5 Gyrs ago
• Pre-biotic chemistry somehow leads to first replicating macro-
molecules (maybe RNA)
• RNA leads to DNA and first life form(s)
• Best estimate: life on Earth is between 3.5 and 4 Gyrs old!
• For >2 Gyrs we have simple prokaryotes, they start
• 1.5 Gyrs ago Eukaryotes evolve
• ~600 Myrs ago complex,
multi-cellular life evolves