Emergence: A New View of Life's Origin

Introduction

How and Why Did Life Emerge?

Whoever answers this question will have solved one of science’s greatest mysteries. Since groundbreaking experiments performed in the 1950s, researchers have felt they almost had the answer—but not quite.

Are we getting close? New research taking place around the globe—including here in New Mexico—suggests we are.

 

 

 

The Scientific Quest
The prevailing origin-of-life theory since the 1950s has been that life emerged through the chance production of a primitive gene out of naturally occurring organic molecules. A new theory, gaining growing support in biological and geological circles, posits that life emerged as a consequence of ordinary chemical reactions that naturally—and perhaps inevitably—lead to metabolic reactions. Metabolism is the network of biochemical reactions in cells that provide energy and materials needed to sustain life.

Origin-of-life theories based on metabolism-first are ideal examples of an approach to problem-solving known as complexity science.

 

Origin of Life Concepts

Complexity Science
Complexity science studies systems and processes as a whole to understand in depth how their parts interconnect and interact. To succeed, researchers from widely diverse disciplines must cooperate closely to share expertise, knowledge, and insights. They use conventional scientific methods such as laboratory experiments and fieldwork, but they depend increasingly on new tools such as advanced mathematical techniques and sophisticated computer modeling.

A beautifully illustrated interactive introduction to complexity science—a whole new way of understanding our world. Each characteristic of complexity science is presented in an engaging and non-technical way.

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Emergence
Emergence is critical to complexity science. Emergence refers to processes in which formerly separate components come together and interact to produce new entities of greater complexity. These new entities will have forms and properties not seen in the previously separate parts.

Emergence is one of many processes involved in the evolution of life—contributing innovations and new sources of variation. Evolution combines the constant emergence of these innovations and variations with natural selection, which retains only the variants that are most successful within their environments. Through the combined action of variation and selection, evolution constantly changes the forms and functions of species and ecosystems and can even change the chemistry of the Earth as a whole.

A Complex, Emerging Universe
Because its beginning was simple, our universe is primed for increasing complexity. Stars formed when hydrogen atoms were drawn together by gravity. Heavier elements were created in the nuclear furnaces of these stars, and then dispersed into space when the stars exploded. Some of this interstellar material coalesced again, forming new stars and planets, including those in our solar system.

A Complex, Emerging Planet
On Earth, amino acids and other organic molecules were first formed when inorganic molecules interacted. Proteins emerged when amino acids combined and folded into three-dimensional chains. RNA and DNA—the molecules that store and transmit genetic information—formed when sugars provided a means for nucleotides to connect. Fatty acids linked together to encapsulate proteins. These and other processes led to the emergence of cells, the basic unit of life. Multi-cell organisms emerged from the union of single-cell organisms. Plants and animals emerged from these.