WASHINGTON (Reuters - Aug 10, 1996) -- The discovery this week of possible evidence of life on Mars has electrified debate over whether the universe is a barren void or a nursery pregnant with life.
Scientists who have come stunningly close to repeating genesis in a test tube say the building blocks for life exist everywhere - the challenge is putting them together.
"The origin of life is a relatively easy thing and there's a wide variety of conditions under which it will take place," said Stanley Miller, professor emeritus at the University of California at San Diego and a pioneer in the field.
"Perhaps the remarkable thing is that even though Mars is not a favorable environment, the origin of life took place."
Astronomers have found that the same gases of our solar system are present throughout the universe. Efforts to make microscopic life from these basic elements on Earth suggest the chance of life arising under similar circumstances is the same everywhere, chemists, biologists and other experts say.
"It seems fairly likely that life similar to ours, if there is water available ... would evolve in other environments in our galaxy or our universe," said James Ferris, a leading researcher and editor of the journal "Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere."
Underlying much of the research is the question: was the development of life on Earth unique, or did the universe's chemical elements naturally evolve into life?
The answer appears to be that at least the chemical reactions that set the stage for early life would be similiar everywhere, but resultant living organisms would differ because of the genetic mutations in evolution.
"If you've got the same starting materials and the same conditions, you're going to get the same compounds, that's for sure," Miller said. "The real question is whether or not there are very chance elements in the formation of life."
Miller first suggested that life was a natural evolution when, in a much-heralded 1953 experiment, he mixed basic gases approximating the Earth's early atmosphere with an electric charge inside a glass chamber and produced amino acids, a primitive building block of life.
It seemed like science was on the cusp of conjuring up creations in the laboratory, but the next 43 years were to present unexpected challenges.
"Making the amino acids made it seem like the rest of the steps would be very easy; it's turned out that it's more difficult that I thought it would be," Miller said in an interview. "It's a series of little tricks. Once you learn the trick it's very easy; the problem is learning the trick."
Rather than trying to cook up life in one pot from basic chemicals interacting, scientists have broken the task into little parts, much as explorers might split into teams to survey certain paths without any one person navigating the entire terrain.
"No one has been able to, you know, sort of connect those line segments and just start with organic compounds and make something that's evolving," said Gerald Joyce, an expert on "in-vitro evolution" at the Scripps Research Institute.
Joyce's research focuses on the end of the chain toward life in which chemicals transform into a biological substance that can replicate and mutate and thus evolve over time.
He takes ribonucleic acid (RNA) which hold genetic code key to reproduction and "breeds" them with the help of other molecules. He is hoping that one day his breeding will spawn something living that replicates on its own.
"It's just like breeding flowers or something," he said.
"We pick the best and the brightest, you know, and use those a parenting stock to produce the next set of progeny."
Ferris' experiments, conducted on the microscopic level in test tubes, show that the minerals in clay help chemical compounds form RNA. The study suggests that life started not in the sea or even by arriving from outer space, as some have suggested, but by splashing onto the surface of rocks.
Even though Miller, Joyce, Ferris and others have made impressive progress in certain sections on the road to life, complete genesis, which took hundreds of millions of years on Earth, remains elusive.
"God knows how long it will take us to do," said Jack Szostak, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. "We've been working on it for ten years; it might take another few years or it might take another 20 or 30 years."
Yet the results so far are encouraging enough for some scientists to conclude the universe is a vast spawning ground of life, with as many as trillions of planets capable of sustaining life.
"The Earth is not a freak speck around a freak star in a freak galaxy, lost in an immense 'unfeeling' whirlpool of stars and galaxies," Nobel laureate Christian de Duve wrote in "Vital Dust," a book about the origin of life. "The universe was -- and presumably still is -- pregnant with life."
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