Scripps Contacts: Mario Aguilera or Jessica Eichenberg: (858) 534-3624

UCSD-Scripps Scientists to Discuss Darwin, the Primeval Soup, and the Origins of Life Lecture and booksigning October 1 at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps

How did life originate on Earth? What did the earliest primitive organisms look like? Were they based on RNA, DNA, or on something we would hardly recognize today? Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

Join Christopher Wills, a professor of biology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and Jeffrey Bada, a professor of marine chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, on Oct. 1 as they discuss the engaging issues brought to light in their new book, “The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup” (Perseus Publishing). The lecture and booksigning event begins at 2 p.m. and is included with paid aquarium admission.

During the lively presentation and discussion on the origin of life, Wills and Bada will describe the steps by which living organisms first appeared, and show how, right from the beginning, the forces of evolution were at work. The lecture includes demonstrations of origin-of-life experiments.

In “The Spark of Life,” Wills and Bada have crafted a down-to-earth story about the quest for the origin of life-in all its fascinating detail.

Untangling a century of debate, the authors explore and debunk theories about the origins of life, and in the process wander from one end of the world to the other and “venture into the depths of the earth and into the Stygian blackness of the deep ocean.” At the end of the book, the authors push the examination into space, “traveling through near and far reaches of the universe as we search for clues to life elsewhere.”

In addition to examining theory, Wills and Bada also present their own calculated scenario for life’s beginnings. Life did not originate in Earth’s subterranean depths, as some have contended, but rather on Earth’s surface, where a primitive form of natural selection spawned the first genetic material.

The authors tell of erupting geysers, intense wave action, lightning flashes, and blazes of sunlight that worked in combination with an atmosphere of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water vapor, to produce a primeval soup of the basic ingredients for the beginnings of life. They give a magnificent description of what the early Earth looked like, with constant asteroid bombardment, killer tides, a lethal atmosphere, and a strange carpet of slime.

They also discuss where in our solar system, and beyond, similar processes may have resulted in the origin of extraterrestrial life.

“What we try to do in the book is present your mind with a picture of what this first living entity was on Earth-it’s nothing like you and I are familiar with-it’s beyond our experience,” said Bada. “It’s something very primitive. You can’t see it, but it is living, so you have to conjure up what it is.”

“The fact that the Earth was such an awful place back then is not something that is fully appreciated by people working in this field,” said Wills. “But that was the challenge-the fact that some groups of molecules could cling to rocks and not be washed away, which would be the very primitive beginning of something that could lead to something more complex. It’s that sort of reasoning that we follow throughout the book. Even at present there is an incredible diversity of life that can survive in all kinds of environments. Life is resourceful.”

Christopher Wills is a UCSD professor of biology whose books include “Yellow Fever, Black Goddess,” and “Children of Prometheus.” Jeffrey Bada is a professor of marine chemistry and director of the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Exobiology at Scripps.

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Adults (18+), $8.50; youths (3-17), $5; college students, $6; seniors (60+), $7.50. Members free. For more information, call the aquarium at 858/534-FISH.

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