April 6, 2000
Where did we come from? Did life arise on earth or was it transported here from some other planet? What did the earliest primitive organisms look like? Were they based on RNA or DNA molecules, or on something we would hardly recognize today? And most importantly, do we have the power to reconstruct those organisms in the laboratory?
In seeking the answers to these questions, Christopher Wills and Jeffrey Bada take us on the mind-expanding journey – back in time, across the globe, and through the solar system in search of extraterrestrial life. From Swedish mine shafts to the Stygian blackness of the deep ocean, the intellectual story they trace is a fascinating one, rooted in recent advances in chemistry, molecular biology, and planetary science.
The road to understanding has not been a smooth one, however, and consensus among scientists is still difficult to achieve. Untangling a century of contentious debate, Wills and Bada explore contemporary theories of the source of life – from asteroids and Martian meteorites to hot rocks in hydrothermal vents. They then present their own elegant and compelling scenario: Life arose not in the subterranean depths, as many have recently suggested, but on Earth’s tumultuous surface, where a primitive form of natural selection spawned the first genetic material, perhaps in the form of a proto-virus.
Illuminating and deeply original, The Spark of Life presents the latest thinking from the frontiers of science. Rich in anecdote and crystal-clear in its explanations of even the most complex phenomena, it is an important book on one of humankind’s most enduring questions.
Christopher Wills is Professor of Biology at the University of California at San Diego and winner of the 1999 AAAS Award for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. His books include Yellow Fever, Black Goddess and Children of Prometheus. Jeffrey Bada is Professor of Marine Chemistry and Director of the NASA Specialist Center of Research and Training in Exobiology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. An instrument he designed to detect traces of amino acids on Mars was recently selected to be part of the mission scheduled to land on the red planet in 2003.