Springer Online Journal Archives 1860-2000
Abstract A review is presented within the framework of the theory of evolution, after it has been extrapolated from the population level to the cellular and molecular levels. From Darwin's seminal and persuasive insight - the theory of common descent - we assume, with him, that “probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed” . We are now aware that this primordial cell may have been a protocyanobacterium, but it has often been called ‘a last universal ancestor’, a ‘breakthrough organism’, or a ‘progenote’, a term introduced by Woese  which has gained wide acceptance. Strictly speaking, in the ‘intermediate period’, ranging from the first living cell to the progenote, life may have evolved in the absence of significant diversity, effectively as a single phylum, incorporating organisms whose genetic systems were already based on DNA. Earlier still, prior to the encapsulation of nucleic acids in microspheres, evolution may already have been at work on RNA molecules (the ‘RNA world’). This takes our discussion into the period of chemical evolution, a concept first put forward by Oparin , whose principal merit is to have formulated the underlying problem in clear scientific terms. This review does not attempt to be comprehensive. It is mainly devoted to the discussion of certain concepts that may have played a relevant role in the pathway that led to the origin and evolution of the progenote. We do not dwell on the main events of the intermediate period. The topics that we have chosen to include are: the origin of chirality of protein amino acids, the origin of translation, and the origin of the genome. We conclude with some comments on one further aspect of the evolutionary process - the development of biodiversity - by considering the origin of the first eukaryotic cell, an event which, according to the fossil record, may have preceded the evolutionary radiation in the early Cambrian by over a billion years.
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