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The Spark Of Life:
How did life begin on earth? Has life evolved on planets other than our own? These questions have occupied scientists and philosophers for hundreds of years, even costing the lives of those, such as Giordano Bruno, who ventured unpopular answers. The penalties for guessing are less severe today, and scientists Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada have a fine time examining the possibilities. Some scholars posit that life first emerged far below the earth's surface, the product of anaerobic, fiery environments. Drawing on advances in catalytic chemistry, Wills and Bada suggest that far more happened on the earth's surface, where "protobionts," floating like oil slicks on a primordial ocean studded with hydrothermal vents, formed a "prebiotic soup"--one that lacked RNA, the supposed building block of life. The evidence for this is conjectural, of course: as Wills and Bada cheerfully admit, "all the primitive organisms ... have inconveniently gone extinct", and reconstructing the pre-RNA world "would require either the discovery of such organisms preserved today in some unusual ecological niche, or else a daunting amount of guesswork". The quest for that "unusual ecological niche" is ongoing, with exploration now focused on a group of freshwater lakes that are trapped beneath the ice of Antarctica. The techniques that American and Russian scientific expeditions have developed to examine those lakes will be applied one day to Europa and other extraterrestrial bodies, where, Wills and Bada believe, evidence of other forms of early life will turn up. --Gregory McNamee [via]