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Published Online: 12 September 2018

Geological and Geochemical Constraints on the Origin and Evolution of Life

Publication: Astrobiology
Volume 18, Issue Number 9


The traditional tree of life from molecular biology with last universal common ancestor (LUCA) branching into bacteria and archaea (though fuzzy) is likely formally valid enough to be a basis for discussion of geological processes on the early Earth. Biologists infer likely properties of nodal organisms within the tree and, hence, the environment they inhabited. Geologists both vet tenuous trees and putative origin of life scenarios for geological and ecological reasonability and conversely infer geological information from trees. The latter approach is valuable as geologists have only weakly constrained the time when the Earth became habitable and the later time when life actually existed to the long interval between ∼4.5 and ∼3.85 Ga where no intact surface rocks are known. With regard to vetting, origin and early evolution hypotheses from molecular biology have recently centered on serpentinite settings in marine and alternatively land settings that are exposed to ultraviolet sunlight. The existence of these niches on the Hadean Earth is virtually certain. With regard to inferring geological environment from genomics, nodes on the tree of life can arise from true bottlenecks implied by the marine serpentinite origin scenario and by asteroid impact. Innovation of a very useful trait through a threshold allows the successful organism to quickly become very abundant and later root a large clade. The origin of life itself, that is, the initial Darwinian ancestor, the bacterial and archaeal roots as free-living cellular organisms that independently escaped hydrothermal chimneys above marine serpentinite or alternatively from shallow pore-water environments on land, the Selabacteria root with anoxygenic photosynthesis, and the Terrabacteria root colonizing land are attractive examples that predate the geological record. Conversely, geological reasoning presents likely events for appraisal by biologists. Asteroid impacts may have produced bottlenecks by decimating life. Thermophile roots of bacteria and archaea as well as a thermophile LUCA are attractive.

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Associate Editor: Charles Cockell

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cover image Astrobiology
Volume 18Issue Number 9September 2018
Pages: 1199 - 1219
PubMed: 30124324


Published online: 12 September 2018
Published in print: September 2018
Published ahead of print: 20 August 2018
Accepted: 28 January 2018
Received: 28 December 2017


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Norman H. Sleep [email protected]
Department of Geophysics, Stanford University, Stanford, California.


Address correspondence to:Norman H. SleepDepartment of Geophysics373A Mitchell BuildingStanford, CA 94305-2215 [email protected]

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