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Издательство: Экспресс Публикации Компания, ООО (Express)
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Express

You are here. How did that happen?

By Sadie Dingfelder January 7

How did we get here? It's a question that has vexed humans since humans were first capable of being vexed, and we don't have a definitive answer. But we're getting closer, says Bill Mesler, author of "A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life." In the book, Mesler and co-author H. James Cleaves II trace how scientists have approached the question. They'll discuss this fascinating history and scientists' current theories at a Smithsonian Associates talk Thursday. Here are three easier questions Mesler tackled for us.

How have humanity's ideas about the emergence of life on Earth changed over time?

Before Darwin, most people thought that life emerged from nonlife all the time. We could see it happening - frogs emerging from mud, maggots emerging from meat. There was even a popular recipe for creating mice, which involved leaving out a barrel of grain. In the Renaissance, microscopes were developed and people began to see the microscopic world, including insect eggs, and it sparked this move towards believing that all life comes from an egg.

In the 1950s, we returned to believing that life can emerge from nonlife but it probably doesn't happen very often. As Charles Darwin noted, if life emerged today, it would probably get eaten almost immediately by some more evolved life form.

What's the current scientific consensus?

There are two dominant camps. The "RNA world" camp believes life may have begun with a kind of RNA molecule called a ribozyme. ... RNA is a jack-of-alltrades. It can do a little bit of everything. ... So the first proto-cell might have been RNA in a bit of a membrane, perhaps a naturally occurring bubble.

Jack Szostak is the scientist who is probably closest to creating life in a laboratory by re-creating conditions that existed on the early Earth. Though if he succeeds, after the initial excitement, people will say, "Well, this is how you created life, but is this how it actually happened?"

The other camp believes that life emerged in hydrothermal vents in the ocean, and that RNA occurred much later. There are a lot of guesses as to what this early life looked like, but this theory is based on examining the oldest parts of our DNA. And the scientists who do that have found that the most ancient living things tend to live near hydrothermal vents.

Why has the origin of life been such a hot topic for so long?

Whenever we gained self-consciousness, that had to be one of the first abstract questions we thought about. Every early religion has a creation story, and even the first book that we know of, "On Nature," by the Greek philosopher Anaximander, dealt with this question. I think wrapped up in the question of where we came from is another one, which is about why we are here, or the meaning of life. Even if we definitively prove how life came to exist, I don't think this is going to solve the metaphysical questions that we continue to have as human beings.

Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW; Thu., 6:45 p.m., $35.

 

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Вашингтонское издание (округ Колумбия) Express Night Out (Washington Post Company)

 

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