The Origin of Life

"On this single planet called Earth, there co-exist (among countless other life forms), algae, beetles, sponges, jellyfish, snakes, condors, and giant sequoias. Imagine these seven living organisms lined up next to each other in one-place. If you didn't know better, you would be hard-pressed to believe that they all came from the same universe, much less the same planet."
-- Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil De Grasse Tyson is Frederick P. Rose Director, Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History (since 1996); Visiting Research Scientist, Department of Astrophysics, Princeton University (since 1994). He writes a monthly column called "Universe" for Natural History magazine and is the author of several books, including "One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos" (2000) and "The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures in an Urban Environment" (2000).

His most recent work is the book (published by W.W. Norton & Co.) and NOVA PBS four-part series, "Origins". Chapter fifteen, titled "The Origin of Life on Earth," is excerpted here with publisher permission.

The search for life in the universe begins with a deep question: what is life? Astrobiologists will tell you honestly that this question has no simple or generally accepted answer.

Not much use to say that we'll know it when we see it. No matter what characteristic we specify to separate living from nonliving matter on Earth, we can always find an example that blurs or erases this distinction. Some or all living creatures grow, move, or decay, but so too do objects that we would never call alive.

Does life reproduce itself? So does fire. Does life evolve to produce new forms? So do certain crystals that grow in watery solutions. We can certainly say that you can tell some forms of life when you see them -- who could fail to see life in a salmon or an eagle?-- but anyone familiar with life in its diverse forms on Earth will admit many creatures will remain entirely undetected until the luck of time and the skill of an expert reveal their living nature.

Since life is short, we must press onward with a rough-and-ready, generally appropriate criterion for life. Here it is: Life consists of sets of objects that can both reproduce and evolve. We shall not call a group of objects alive simply because they make more of themselves. To qualify as life, they must also evolve into new forms as time passes.

This definition therefore eliminates the possibility that any single object can be judged to be alive. Instead, we must examine a range of objects in space and follow them through time. This definition of life may yet prove too restrictive, but for now we shall employ it.

As biologists have examined different types of life on our planet, they have discovered a general property of Earthlife. The matter within every living Earth creature mainly consists of just four chemical elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

All the other elements together contribute less than one percent of the mass of any living organism. The elements beyond the big four include small amounts of phosphorus, which ranks as the most important, and is essential to most forms of life, together with still smaller amounts of sulfur, sodium, magnesium, chlorine, potassium, calcium, and iron.

But can we conclude that this elemental property of life on Earth must likewise describe other forms of life in the cosmos? Here we can apply the Copernican principle in full vigor. The four elements that form the bulk of life on Earth all appear on the short list of the universe's six most abundant elements. Since the other two elements on the list, helium and neon, almost never combine with anything else, life on Earth consists of the most abundant and chemically active ingredients in the cosmos.

Of all the predictions that we can make about life on other worlds, the surest seems to be that their life will be made of elements nearly the same as those used by life on Earth. If life on our planet consisted primarily of four extremely rare elements in the cosmos, such as niobium, bismuth, gallium, and plutonium, we would have an excellent reason to suspect we represent something special in the universe. Instead, the chemical composition of life on our planet inclines us toward an optimistic view of life's possibilities beyond Earth.

The composition of life on Earth fits the Copernican principle even more than one might initially suspect. If we lived on a planet made primarily of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen, then the fact that life consists primarily of these four elements would hardly surprise us. But Earth is mainly made of oxygen, iron, silicon, aluminum, and iron. Only one of these elements, oxygen, appears on the list of life's most abundant elements.

When we look into Earth's oceans, which are almost entirely hydrogen and oxygen, it is surprising that life lists carbon and nitrogen among its most abundant elements, rather than chlorine, sodium, sulfur, calcium, or potassium, which are the most common elements dissolved in seawater. The distribution of the elements in life on Earth resembles the composition of the stars far more than that of Earth itself. As a result, life's elements are more cosmically abundant than Earth's-- a good start for those who hope to find life in a host of situations.

This excerpt is presented in cooperation with Astrobiology Magazine, a web-based publication sponsored by the NASA astrobiology program.

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