When we look at stars on a clear night sky we are, in a way, looking back in time. Stellar distances are measured in light years. What we see today is an object whose emitted light started its journey millions of year back and from trillions of kilometres away and reaching our eyes now.
However, when we see objects in our immediate surroundings we see them instantly and hence in the present time. Therefore, when we see stars we apparently are peeping into the past. The origin of life is considered a unique event in the history of universe.
The universe is vast. Relatively speaking the earth itself is almost only a speck. The universe is very old – almost 20 billion years old. Huge clusters of galaxies comprise the universe. Galaxies contain stars and clouds of gas and dust. Considering the size of universe, earth is indeed a speck.
The Big Bang theory attempts to explain to us the origin of universe. It talks of a singular huge explosion unimaginable in physical terms. The universe expanded and hence, the temperature came down. Hydrogen and Helium formed sometime later.
The gases condensed under gravitation and formed the galaxies of the present day universe. In the solar system of the milky way galaxy, earth was supposed to have been formed about 4.5 billion years back. There was no atmosphere on early earth. Water vapour, methane, carbondioxide and ammonia released from molten mass covered the surface. The UV rays from the sun brokeup water into Hydrogen and Oxygen and the lighter H2 escaped.
Oxygen combined with ammonia and methane to form water, CO2 and others. The ozone layer was formed. As it cooled, the water vapor fell as rain, to fill all the depressions and form oceans. Life appeared 500 million years after the formation of earth, i.e., almost four billion years back. Did life come from outerspace? Some scientists believe that it came from outside.
Early Greek thinkers thought units of life called spores were transferred to different planets including earth. ‘Panspermia’ is still a favourite idea for some astronomers. For a long time it was also believed that life came out of decaying and rotting matter like straw, mud, etc. This was the theory of spontaneous generation. Louis Pasteur by careful experimentation demonstrated that life comes only from pre-existing life.
He showed that in pre-sterilised flasks, life did not come from killed yeast while in another flask open to air, new living organisms arose from ‘killed yeast’. Spontaneous generation theory was dismissed once and for all. However, this did not answer how the first life form came on earth.
Oparin of Russia and Haldane of England proposed that the first form of life could have come from pre-existing non-living organic molecules (e.g. RNA, protein, etc.) and that formation of life was preceded by chemical evolution, i.e., formation of diverse organic molecules from inorganic constituents. The conditions on earth were – high temperature, volcanic storms, reducing atmosphere containing CH4, NH3, etc.
In 1953, S.L. Miller, an American scientist created similar conditions in a laboratory scale (Figure 7.1). He created electric discharge in a closed flask containing CH4, H2, NH3 and water vapaur at 8000C. He observed formation of amino acids. In similar experiments others observed, formation of sugars, nitrogen bases, pigment and fats. Analysis of meteorite content also revealed similar compounds indicating that similar processes are occurring elsewhere in space.
With this limited evidence, the first part of the conjectured story, i.e., chemical evolution was more or less accepted. We have no idea about how the first self replicating metabolic capsule of life arose. The first non-cellular forms of life could have originated 3 billion years back.
They would have been giant molecules (RNA, Protein, Polysaccharides, etc.). These capsules reproduced their molecules perhaps. The first cellular form of life did not possibly originate till about 2000 million years ago. These were probably single-cells. All life forms were in water environment only.
This version of a biogenesis, i.e., the first form of life arose slowly through evolutionary forces from non-living molecules is accepted by majority. However, once formed, how the first cellular forms of life could have evolved into the complex biodiversity of today is the fascinating story that will be discussed below.