In biology, abiogenesis (from a- 'not' + Greek bios 'life' + genesis 'origin') or the origin of life is the natural process by which life has arisen from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. The prevailing scientific hypothesis is that the transition from non-living to living entities on Earth was not a single event, but a process of increasing complexity involving the formation of a habitable planet, the prebiotic synthesis of organic molecules, molecular self-replication, self-assembly, autocatalysis, and the emergence of cell membranes. Many proposals have been made for different stages of the process.
The study of abiogenesis aims to determine how pre-life chemical reactions gave rise to life under conditions strikingly different from those on Earth today. It primarily uses tools from biology and chemistry, with more recent approaches attempting a synthesis of many sciences. Life functions through the specialized chemistry of carbon and water, and builds largely upon four key families of chemicals: lipids for cell membranes, carbohydrates such as sugars, amino acids for protein metabolism, and nucleic acid DNA and RNA for the mechanisms of heredity. Any successful theory of abiogenesis must explain the origins and interactions of these classes of molecules. Many approaches to abiogenesis investigate how self-replicating molecules, or their components, came into existence. Researchers generally think that current life descends from an RNA world, although other self-replicating molecules may have preceded RNA.
The classic 1952 Miller–Urey experiment demonstrated that most amino acids, the chemical constituents of proteins, can be synthesized from inorganic compounds under conditions intended to replicate those of the early Earth. External sources of energy may have triggered these reactions, including lightning, radiation, atmospheric entries of micro-meteorites and implosion of bubbles in sea and ocean waves. Other approaches ("metabolism-first" hypotheses) focus on understanding how catalysis in chemical systems on the early Earth might have provided the precursor molecules necessary for self-replication.
A genomics approach has sought to characterise the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) of modern organisms by identifying the genes shared by Archaea and Bacteria, members of the two major branches of life (where the Eukaryotes belong to the archaean branch in the two-domain system). 355 genes appear to be common to all life; their nature implies that the LUCA was anaerobic with the Wood–Ljungdahl pathway, deriving energy by chemiosmosis, and maintaining its hereditary material with DNA, the genetic code, and ribosomes. Although the LUCA lived over 4 billion years ago (4 Gya), researchers do not believe it was the first form of life. Earlier cells might have had a leaky membrane and been powered by a naturally occurring proton gradient near a deep-sea white smoker hydrothermal vent.
Earth remains the only place in the universe known to harbor life, and fossil evidence from the Earth informs most studies of abiogenesis. The Earth was formed 4.54 Gya; the earliest undisputed evidence of life on Earth dates from at least 3.5 Gya. Fossil micro-organisms appear to have lived within hydrothermal vent precipitates dated 3.77 to 4.28 Gya from Quebec, soon after ocean formation 4.4 Gya during the Hadean.
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