Our prehistoric Earth, bombarded with asteroids and lightening, rife with bubbling geothermal pools, may not seem hospitable today. But somewhere in the chemical chaos of our early planet, life did form. How? For decades, scientists have attempted to create miniature replicas of infant Earth in the lab. There, they hunt for the primordial ingredients that created the essential building blocks for life.
It’s attractive to chase our origin story. But this pursuit can bring more than just thrill. Knowledge of how Earth built its first cells could inform our search for extraterrestrial life. If we identify the ingredients and environment required to spark spontaneous life, we could search for similar conditions on planets across our universe.
Today, much of the origin-of-life research focuses on one specific building block: RNA. While some scientists believe that life formed from simpler molecules and only later evolved RNA, others look for evidence to prove (or disprove) that RNA formed first. A complex but versatile molecule, RNA stores and transmits genetic information and helps synthesize proteins, making it a capable candidate for the backbone of the first cells.