20.7: A Summary and Some Conclusions
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Our consideration of how life began on earth was intentionally placed at the end of this textbook, after we tried to get a handle on how cells work. Clearly any understanding of life origins scenarios is very much a matter of informed, if divergent speculations. Alternative notions for the origins of life entertained here all address events that presaged life under ‘best-guess’ hypothetical conditions. After trying to get a grip on prebiotic events, we asked how we got from what could have happened under a given set of prebiotic conditions to the cellular life we recognize today. All proposals recognize that the first cells had all of the properties of life (including evolution itself). Starting with that common understanding, all arguable scenarios try to navigate pathways from primitive, less controlled chemistries to more regulated and coordinated metabolisms, in other words from chemical simplicity to biochemical complexity. The chemical and metabolic evolution that began before life may have overlapped in time with cellular evolution, at least until the LUCA. While chemical evolution was mainly a series of selections by the physicality of a prebiotic world, the evolution of life contends with both that physical world, and with life itself. LUCA, the universal common ancestor, had already escaped the RNA world, replicating DNA, transcribing RNA and translating mRNAs into polypeptides, all behind a semipermeable phospholipid bilayer. Whether a heterotroph or (increasingly more likely) an autotroph, LUCA used the energy of ATP to power all of its cellular work, as do its descendants. Thus, cellular evolution, in fact all life after the LUCA, is focused on continued selection of the complexities of metabolism that enables the spread and diversification of life from wherever it started.
The selection of chemistries and traits encoded by already existing, accumulated random, neutral genetic changes, continue to this day, increasing the diversity of species and their spread to virtually every conceivable ecological niche on the planet. The overall takehome message of this chapter should be an understanding of how the molecular basis of evolution can help us understand how life may have begun on earth (or anywhere for that matter!). In turn, speculation about life’s origins informs us about how the properties of life were selected under a set of prebiotic physical and chemical conditions.