Biomolecules First Arose by Chemical Evolution

In our account thus far we have passed over the first chapter of the story of evolution: the appearance of the first living cell. Apart from their occurrence in living organisms, organic compounds, including the basic bio-molecules such as amino acids and carbohydrates, are found in only trace amounts in the earth's crust, the sea, and the atmosphere. How did the first living organisms acquire their characteristic organic building blocks? In 1922, the biochemist Aleksandr I. Oparin proposed a theory for the origin of life early in the history of Earth, postulating that the atmosphere was very different from that of today. Rich in methane, ammonia, and water, and essentially devoid of oxygen, it was a reducing atmosphere, in contrast to the oxidizing environment of our era. In Oparin's theory, electrical energy from lightning discharges or heat energy from volcanoes caused ammonia, methane, water vapor, and other components of the primitive atmosphere to react, forming simple organic compounds. These compounds then dissolved in the ancient seas, which over many millennia became enriched with a large variety of simple organic substances. In this warm solution (the "primordial soup"), some organic molecules had a greater tendency than others to associate into larger complexes. Over millions of years, these in turn assembled spontaneously to form membranes and catalysts (enzymes), which came together to become precursors of the earliest cells. Oparin's views remained speculative for many years and appeared untestable—until a surprising experiment was conducted using simple equipment on a desktop.

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