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Hot off the Press: Jump-Starting a Cellular World

by PhilipJ on 15 November 2005

In the most recent issue of PLoS Biology is an interesting Feature article on Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks. Here’s how it starts out:

A physicist, a chemist, and a mathematician are stranded on a desert isle, when a can of food washes up on the beach. The three starving scientists suggest, in turn, how to open the can and ease their hunger. The physicist suggests they hurl it upon the rocks to split it open, but this fails. The chemist proposes they soak it in the sea and let the salt water eat away at the metal; again, no luck. They turn in desperation to the mathematician, who begins, “Assume we have a can opener…�

This joke, while not even having a biologist present, is similar to how biologists talk about the origins of life. Starting with a cell, our current understanding of evolution is able to explain the current state of affairs rather well, but how that first cell forms is not obvious. The article says it best:

Give biologists a cell, and they’ll give you the world. But beyond assuming the first cell must have somehow come into existence, how do biologists explain its emergence from the prebiotic world four billion years ago?

The short answer is that they can’t, yet.

The article then goes on to discuss the pioneering experiments by Miller and Urey, the curious handedness of biological molecules, the RNA world hypothesis, genes-first (replicators) versus metabolism-first (pyrite surfaces acting as catalysts of early biochemistry) origins to life, and self-organizing metabolic networks. There’s a little something for everyone!

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