How Did Life Begin? New Study Reveals Life in the Universe Could Be Common

How Did Life Begin

Is life a game of chance?

To help answer one of the great existential questions — how did life begin? — a new study combines biological and cosmological models. Professor Tomonori Totani from the Department of Astronomy looked at how life’s building blocks could spontaneously form in the universe — a process known as abiogenesis.

If there’s one thing in the universe that is certain, it’s that life exists. It must have begun at some point in time, somewhere. But despite all we know from biology and physics, the exact details about how and when life began, and also whether it began elsewhere, are largely speculative. This enticing omission from our collective knowledge has set many curious scientists on a journey to uncover some new detail that might shed light on existence itself.

As the only life we know of is based on Earth, studies on life’s origins are limited to the specific conditions we find here. Therefore, most research in this area looks at the most basic components common to all known living things: ribonucleic acid, or RNA. This is a far simpler and more essential molecule than the more famous deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, that defines how we are put together. But RNA is still orders of magnitude more complex than the kinds of chemicals one tends to find floating around in space or stuck to the face of a lifeless planet.

RNA is a polymer, meaning it is made of chemical chains, in this case known as nucleotides. Researchers in this field have reason to believe that RNA no less than 40 to 100 nucleotides long is necessary for the self-replicating behavior required for life to exist. Given sufficient time, nucleotides can spontaneously connect to form RNA given the right chemical conditions. But current estimates suggest that magic number of 40 to 100 nucleotides should not have been possible in the volume of space we consider the observable universe.

Time Line of the Universe

A diagram to show the inflationary history of the universe. Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

“However, there is more to the universe than the observable,” said Totani. “In contemporary cosmology, it is agreed the universe underwent a period of rapid inflation producing a vast region of expansion beyond the horizon of what we can directly observe. Factoring this greater volume into models of abiogenesis hugely increases the chances of life occurring.”

Indeed, the observable universe contains about 10 sextillion (1022) stars. Statistically speaking, the matter in such a volume should only be able to produce RNA of about 20 nucleotides. But it’s calculated that, thanks to rapid inflation, the universe may contain more than 1 googol (10100) stars, and if this is the case then more complex, life-sustaining RNA structures are more than just probable, they’re practically inevitable.

“Like many in this field of research, I am driven by curiosity and by big questions,” said Totani. “Combining my recent investigation into RNA chemistry with my long history of cosmology leads me to realize there is a plausible way the universe must have gone from an abiotic (lifeless) state to a biotic one. It’s an exciting thought and I hope research can build on this to uncover the origins of life.”

Reference: “Emergence of life in an inflationary universe” by Tomonori Totani, 3 February 2020, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-58060-0

33 Comments on "How Did Life Begin? New Study Reveals Life in the Universe Could Be Common"

  1. In the beginning, before anything else existed, there existed a nugget of matter dense beyond comprehension. Infinitely dense. This nugget of matter was in a low entropy state. Then something caused this dense ball of matter (containing all the matter in the observable universe) to ignite and expand in a huge, big bang of an explosion. And, as they say, the rest is history. Of course, this is a simplistic explanation and scientists can and will elaborate to no end. All this is good but the question remains: Where did that tiny nugget of matter come from?

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 8, 2020 at 6:44 am | Reply

      Modern cosmology “elaboration” of the many decades old cosmology you describe has replaced an “infinite” dense initial state with inflation. (Thus explaining the low entropy by the way, as well as why space is flat and homogeneous, isotropic.) An update for those who need it is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1Q8tS-9hYo . For inflation physics simple explanation I recommend astrophysicist Matt O’Dowd’s PBS series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJCX2NlhdTc , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chsLw2siRW0&t=607s ].

      Interestingly, the type of inflation that Planck collaboration – using ESA’s Planck observatory – could see 2018 after finally being able to filter out dust correctly is a type that would be eternal, infinitely old when we look back in time. This is the generic behavior of inflation, and is most likely (since else you must have very specific conditions to avoid it).

      This comment has links, it seems they can be held for moderation. I have a longer comment where I also touch more on how eternal inflation results in observers such as us.

    • John Campbell | March 8, 2020 at 2:20 pm | Reply

      It all came from a smartarse’s over-furtive imagination. Utter codswallop. There was no “nugget of matter dense beyond comprehension”. This is a fantasy plucked out of the eather like miracles or talking snakes. It makes far greater logical, reasonable sense that matter coagulates naturally and randomly throughout the Cosmos- we see the very evidence of this every day in nebulae as embryonic stars slowly form and ignite into proto-stars, which then live their long fiery lives until they either fizzle out, explode or collapse into White Dwarves, Neurton stars or Black Holes… all of which furnish the great gravity-asembled entities we call ‘Galaxies’. These processes are the be-all and end-all of the universe in action- start to finish. there is nothing more as goes the proceses of the Cosmos, it’s all a process of star life and death and all the incidental happenings in between, like life and planets and asteroids and the rest of the great natural mess that is existence. This Big Bang stuff is little more than a creationist fantasy.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 2:53 am | Reply

        Many scientists worked out – and today agree – on the LCDM cosmology. Which is not what you describe, see my first video link in my response to the OP.

    • “Where did that tiny nugget of matter come from?”
      Hawking explained it like this: Since there was no time or space before the Big Bang event, we know that the universe must have existed for all time. Even though the universe had a beginning, it has also always existed. This is a wonderful paradox and our universe is full of them.

      Hawking also demonstrated that we cannot learn anything about the universe until it has aged at least 10⁻³² seconds because no information has been created yet.

      People who attribute the origin of the universe to some unobserved and ambiguously defined supreme beings have no explanation for their existence, so it’s disingenuous for them to argue that their Gods somehow produced time and space.

  2. The answer is all there in the Bible. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God created everything from the earth to the plants to animals and humans. Every life form.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 8, 2020 at 6:45 am | Reply

      That is erroneous myth, not discussing the science in the article of this science site. Please take it elsewhere.

    • “Sentience Orders, nothing else does, therefore the Universe is Ordered by an Agency of Mind; the secret to the Universe is not a secret – and We are Legion.”
      Stanza I – The Next Testament.

      So I agree with you…

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 3:01 am | Reply

        Your opinion does not agree with me, obviously.

        For instance, the now consensus LCDM cosmology is based on general relativity, which means it describes all there is, was and can be. Space and time is a relativistically closed system, and there is no magic involved in making it (or LCDM wouldn’t be fact).

        For another, space is flat. That means it has on average zero energy density, which means it describes all energy and work. The universe is a thermodynamically closed system, and there is no magic involved acting out in it (or LCDM wouldn’t be fact).

        The last 3 years – I include the LHC evidence that there is no magic ‘souls’ or ‘afterlife’ (since equally the quantum vacuum is a closed system, or the Standard Model of particles wouldn’t be predictive) – religious superstition has joined astrology and homeopathy as regards what we know about it: it doesn’t work, there are no ‘gods’ magic.

  3. As described in Genesis of the Christian bible I think not. It is of course for most the easy answer that suits them and keeps their hearts content. Unfortunately too much in science proves it could not and did not happen that way sorry to say. Science is not out to disprove the bible though and just seeking the truth. Christian’s will always defend it and adopt willful ignorance. Please stop it

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 8, 2020 at 7:16 am | Reply

      First off, everyone can agree that religious really should not troll science sites, it is rude. “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” – Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate.

      But as long as we discuss the intrusion: being man made myth it is unlikely, even if we did not have thousands other myths that contradict this particular one. Worse though, arguably the last two decades have put astrology, religion and homeopathy on the same empirical footing – it is snake oil.

      After astrology separated from religion it quickly became unpopular. But the death knell came about a century ago when star patterns were shown to be view point and pattern search projections as astronomers started to measure distances to stars. Half a century after, psychologists showed that the astrology mechanism of horoscopes do not work by doing blind tests.

      In comparison the generic religious superstition has similar underpinning in magic.

      Well, science of religion – that is a secular subject not to be confused with “religion science” – showed in robust meta analysis that intercessory prayer rituals do not work in blind tests over a decade ago.

      And 2017 the LHC particle accelerator had not only tested the existence of the Higgs field but also checked that it was the standard type. With that arguably physicists had enough results to show that magic mechanisms such as “souls, “ghosts”, “afterlife” and “rebirth” can be robustly excluded. Public particle physicists like Brian Cox in his Infinite Monkey Cage series made that point several times. Turns out there is not enough remaining interactions and to be able to predict the LHC results you must know *everything* important that affects our biochemical machine bodies. Quantum fields can approximate everything else with perturbations – particle collisions – and count all the effects up in Feynman diagrams. The quantum vacuum – the sum of the low energy fields – can be considered a closed system.

      And finally, arguably we can observe that eternal inflation has made the universe a similarly a general relativistic of all there is and can be, But more importantly it turns out the universe is a thermodynamically closed system, thanks to inflation. The thermodynamic closure follows from that space is flat. So over volumes larger than gravitationally bound systems (such as our Local Group of galaxies, which is 10 million light years across) the average energy density sums to zero. So all the contents and all the work is known to be natural, from the same principle even the rare religious scientist commonly agree on. Closure of systems means no outside effects – magic never touched the universe. Magic is snake oil.

      But specifically – due to historical popularity – astrology, religion and homeopathy are the Iron Age magics that we can stop discuss. I’m sure there are more stuff that go on that old-but-still-popular list: it is a long one.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 8, 2020 at 7:19 am | Reply

        Seems a C&P error slipped in:

        “And finally, arguably we can observe that eternal inflation has made the universe a similarly a general relativistic of all there is and can be,” = And finally, arguably we can observe that eternal inflation has made the universe a similarly general relativistic closed system of all there is and can be.

      • Torbjörn Larsson | March 8, 2020 at 7:24 am | Reply

        Oh, and I meant to note – which I have described in other comments here – that the eternal inflation observation is from 2018. I put up the results in historical order.

      • But despite all that sciency modelling you do, you all have a 100% failure rate explaining a sentience imbued Universe.

        Not a strong position.

        • Steven E Bobulsky | March 8, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Reply

          It is rude for religion to interrupt scientific inquiry. Conversely, it’s rude of science to criticize the genesis myth by saying its ‘science’ is flawed. Genesis never promotes itself as a scientifically oriented inquiry into the literal blow by blow machinations of universal assembly. It’s a sacred myth intended to convey an underlying transcendental truth, which would necessarily be unavailable to physical inquiry.

          It makes no sense for a reader of Genesis to critique science, and it makes no sense for science to critique a text that doesn’t claim to be science. Moreover, one does not exclude the truth being expressed in the other. I never understand why folks don’t get that.

        • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 3:03 am | Reply

          First off, it is both observation and theory, models is a subordinate tool.

          Second, the uncertainty of LCDM cosmology is something like 0.1 % on parameters like flatness. In your terms that is 100 % success rate.

          And anyway, I just showed you that today religion is a 100 % failure, by observation.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson | March 8, 2020 at 6:31 am | Reply

    Biologists in general think life is common since it evolved so early here on Earth, but that language capable human analogs are rare like the elephant trunk – each trait evolved just once in 4 billion years. The consensus theory, based on biology and geology, is that life evolved in alkaline hydrothermal vents. Genome trees [https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/our-last-common-ancestor-inhaled-hydrogen-underwater-volcanoes ], heat shock protein ancestor temperature ranges and cell metal content agree on that.

    Recent evidence implies that evolution was not a fluke. Their mineral assemblies can produce simple hydrocarbon starter materials that can build cells out of CO2 and H2, and that was also adopted as the universal common ancestor metabolism. [ https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/was-life-s-first-meal?utm_campaign=news_daily_2020-03-02&et_rid=388985880&et_cid=3228349 ].

    These early vents could replicate 100s of bases long RNA strands by abiotic thermocycling PCR as demonstrated in experiments. They also concentrate biomolecules many order of magnitudes over in their pores. Another recent result is that the environment maximizes membrane vesicle production out of heterogeneous lipid mixes.

    Moreover, in the early ocean the simple hydrocarbons would meet reduced, dissolved catalytic iron at the ocean interface, and together with other mechanisms the vents could produce lipids, sugars, and nucleobases in its various parts. Tthe gluconeogenesis/glycolysis could happen at the vent/ocean interface, nucleobases could be produced in the core, and lipid production could happen at the vent/crust interface from further synthesis of the simple lipids. The Fe rich ocean would sequester phosphate but the mineral filtered and pH buffered vents would likely not. Such vents could also produce the ammonia that went into nucleobases before enzyme evolution, so that nitrogen instead was pulled from the atmosphere.

    Finally, very recent results suggest that early Earth was an ocean world [ https://www.universetoday.com/145214/3-billion-years-ago-the-world-might-have-been-a-waterworld-with-no-continents-at-all/#comment-159746 ].

    But Tonani deviate from the consensus and thus consider us rare in the universe. Along that line of analysis, cosmologists think not since we discovered inflation. Eternal inflation, which is what we see, naturally makes infinite many universes, each with its own physics. Very few – roughly 1 out of 10^120 – are habitable since star or even atoms demand physics in a narrow range. That would (arguably) explain why our universe is good for producing life but also why it is bad at supporting it (long distances between stars and galaxies). A galaxy here or there with a planet here or there will have human analogs.

  5. Man is just touching the tip of the iceberg as far as knowledge of the universe is concerned. It is mesmerizing and mind-boggling just to think of where we humans (mere specks in the universe) stand in the crucible of ‘time.’ The more we study the more we seem to be at a loss to explain what the universe really is and how it matters. Professional astronomers perhaps do feel a sense of awe and admiration for the universe and its many unexplained phenomena. The fact that the laws of gravitation and cosmic energy and space are so reliable and trustworthy that man depends on these natural laws to study planetary bodies and constellations speaks a lot about the designer of it all. Many people have found sufficient evidence in the physical universe to believe in the existence of an intelligent First Cause. The laws of physics, they say, seem to have been fine-tuned to support life. If the universe were set up just slightly differently, life would be impossible. Still, life, in all its fantastic diversity, is all around us. Cosmologist Paul Davies writes: “As the cosmic drama unfolds, it looks as if there is a script—a coherent scheme of things . . . Nature is not an arbitrary juxtaposition of events but the manifestation of ingeniously interweaving mathematical laws.” If there is fine-tuning, then must there not also be a Master Tuner—a Designer, a Creator—with a purpose? God’s “invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship.” (Romans 1:20)

  6. Esteban Ruiz | March 8, 2020 at 10:19 am | Reply

    This is you speaking to you. You are dreaming all this and when you wake up you will see that you are a turtle laying on the back of another turtle. That other turtle is you. laying on top of another. It’s turtles all the way down.

  7. So how many assumptions did they make? Since no one has observed RNA mysteriously forming at forty nucleoids long, how did they calculate the probablity?

    Are they sure its 40 that allows for replication not 100 or 1000?

    Neat trick to be talking about the part of the universe we will never observe. You just won’t be proven wrong But a theory that can’t be falsified can’t be proven. This is not science

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 3:13 am | Reply

      No assumptions, actually. All you need is the Planck 2018 observation of eternal (slow roll) inflation [Planck Legacy Arcive, 2018 paper on cosmological parameters]. That gets you a sufficiently large universe that the local matter configuration must eventually be repeated elsewhere. (Follows from how black holes show entropy works; long story.) Or in this case, near enough repeated.

      But we don’t need that. To quote myself: “These early vents could replicate 100s of bases long RNA strands by abiotic thermocycling PCR as demonstrated in experiments.” So the probability is 1 – it happens.

  8. Here a religious person spends scant more than an hour a week learning their nonsense and somehow, like magic, they talk as if they know more than the body of all science, whom people spend their entire lives studying the FACTS of how the universe works.
    Utter hubris. Science works. God may have created the virus and the bacteria, but humans armed with science created the vaccine.

  9. We still need to create life in the lab, to be sure, from basic elements and urge it all along the way to single cell, to multi-cellular. Beyond the remote idea of a discovery on Mars or Titan or Ganymede, it’s the only way to be sure. The best question in this, is asking, what in chemistry are we missing?

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 3:15 am | Reply

      No experts, biologists, would claim that is necessary. Doing more research, yes. But how life evolved has a consensus theory (see my long comment that now is out of moderation due to links).

  10. Ian Bashforh | March 8, 2020 at 8:12 pm | Reply

    Comparing the content of this article to its headline and thinking I’ve been fooled. I surely can’t buy this utter load of bullocks.

  11. Just the facts please, then speculate what is possible from there.

    1: Life is Most Important in Life is The Most Important Truth in Life.
    2. All other truths depend on “Life is Most Important in Life” being true to in turn then be true themselves.
    3: Life forms evolve over time.
    4. No life can evolve to the point of propagating beyond its local area without first understanding and accepting that “Life is Most Important in Life” is always true.
    5. Any life out there would eventually evolve to the point of accepting “Life is Most Important in Life” and would in turn then propagate that information throughout the universe.
    6. There has been no information received from other star systems that endorse “Life is Most Important in Life” and as such, they are not there.

    Regardless of all the numbers of stars, if there was life other places it would have evolved and promoted Life is Most Important in life and that has not happened. As such, while it may be true that some life has started a few places, it must be incredibly rare and we are the most advanced life within our light distance horizon. Nothing else is actually possible.

    While it is fun to think and pretend otherwise, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any life exists anywhere, but here. If it did and were common, it would have already made its presence known by broadcasting the truth of the importance of life.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 3:17 am | Reply

      Science doesn’t do speculation.

      On your personal opinion, let me quote myself on the facts: “Biologists in general think life is common since it evolved so early here on Earth, but that language capable human analogs are rare like the elephant trunk – each trait evolved just once in 4 billion years.”

  12. The Vedas indicate the universe is one of Viṣṇu’s dreams, with objects manifested as symbols of meanings, which means life is fundamental and didn’t begin at any time.

    It’s a false assumption that life must have began. It leads to the false assumption that life is made of matter, which is an unfortunate mistake because (as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems show) the reduction of concepts to things discards meanings, which are important to living beings.

  13. There’s speculation, wild speculation, cosmology, and then there’s astrobiology…

    • Torbjörn Larsson | March 11, 2020 at 3:20 am | Reply

      You forgot personal opinion.

      Such as yours. I think scientists would rank that as cosmology, astrobiology, speculation, wild speculation, and personal opinion.

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