The Birth of Life

  • Roberto Ligrone


Life was most likely present on Earth as early as 3.5 GYA and probably made its first appearance around 4 GYA. Alkaline hydrothermal vents discovered in 2000 are presently considered a likely setting for the origin of life because they could provide organic matter, chemical disequilibria and compartmentation. Simulation experiments show that the synthesis of simple organic molecules from CO2 and H2 and of peptides from free amino acids is thermodynamically favoured under hydrothermal vent conditions. Abiotic synthesis of nucleotides and RNA is more problematic due to intrinsic instability of RNA and ribose under alkaline conditions. Association with abiotic peptides might have stabilized abiotic RNA, leading to the emergence of self-replicating ribonucleoprotein complexes (RNPs). It is suggested that a crucial step towards life was the appearance of “protoribosomes”, viz. RNPs capable of making peptides with a sequence determined by cognate RNAs under the rules of a primordial genetic code, and “protoviruses”, viz. RNPs that replicated RNA templates from free nucleotides under the rules of base complementarity. Although the two classes of RNPs most likely evolved independently, they established stable associations by moving with water currents and binding to peptide-mineral protomembranes in hydrothermal vents. Protoribosomes and protoviruses were ancestral to ribosomes and chromosomes, respectively. Incorporation of polar lipids into protomembranes produced biological membranes. DNA replaced RNA as a more stable repository of genetic information at a very early stage of evolution. Chemiosmosis, the universal energy-harnessing mechanism of life, probably appeared in a rudimentary form at a prebiotic stage, and was certainly operative in LUCA. Early life was probably autotrophic, obtaining organic carbon and energy from carbon dioxide reduction with hydrogen of geochemical origin.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberto Ligrone
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Environmental, Biological and Pharmaceutical Sciences and TechnologiesUniversity of Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”CasertaItaly

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