The Spark Of Life: Darwin And The Primeval Soup

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9780738201962: The Spark Of Life: Darwin And The Primeval Soup

Where did we come from? Though researchers have done much work on this question in recent years, the answer remains elusive. In The Spark of Life , Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada examine the enduring mysteries surrounding life's origin: Did life arise on earth or on some other planet? What did the earliest primitive organisms look like? Were they based on RNA, DNA, or on something we would hardly recognize today? Untangling a century of contentious debate, the authors explore current theories of "the source"-from Martian meteors to hydrothermal vents-and then present their own elegant and compelling scenario: Life arose not in the subterranean depths, as many believe, but on Earth's tumultuous surface, where a primitive form of natural selection spawned the first genetic material, perhaps in the form of a proto-virus. The book ends with a whirlwind tour of one of the most exciting scientific endeavors: the search for extraterrestrial life. Knowing exactly how life began on Earth will not only teach us more about ourselves, it will bring us much closer to finding life elsewhere.

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Review:

Can you create life with just a taser and a bowl of soup? Most likely not, unless you give yourself a few hundred million years to experiment. Biologist Christopher Wills and marine chemist Jeffrey Bada show off the fruits of research looking for signs of life elsewhere and clues to the origin of terrestrial organisms in The Spark of Life. The writing is clear and every concept is explained well--Wills's reputation for translating scientific understanding into plain English is well-deserved, and Bada's insider status with NASA provides insight not found elsewhere. They examine the field of theories, from extraterrestrial origin to life spilling out of hydrothermal vents to deep-crust genesis, and find strengths and weaknesses in them all. Their own partisan stance has it that life began on the surface of our planet through Darwinian-like processes operating on primitive self-replicating chemicals. Though their arguments are fairly compelling, the jury is still out, and will probably remain out indefinitely; science often balks at providing explanations for unique events, preferring to stick to general principles. Still, we can see that the problem is valuable because the search for an answer turns up all sorts of unexpected scientific finds: RNA-catalyzed reactions, Martian environmental problems, and natural selection of nonliving chemicals all showed up amid these debates. While it won't settle the issues, we can be glad that The Spark of Life explains them so clearly and primes us for the research still to come. --Rob Lightner

About the Author:

Christopher Wills is Professor of Biology at the University of California at San Diego. His books include B;ack Fever, Yellow Goddess, and Children of Prometheus. Jeffrey Bada ia Professor of Marine Chemistry and Director of NASA Specialized Centre of Research and Training in Exobiology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

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