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A Simpler Origin for Life

The sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable. Energy-driven networks of small molecules afford better odds as the initiators of life

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Extraordinary discoveries inspire extraordinary claims. Thus, James Watson reported that immediately after he and Francis Crick uncovered the structure of DNA, Crick "winged into the Eagle (pub) to tell everyone within hearing that we had discovered the secret of life." Their structure--an elegant double helix--almost merited such enthusiasm. Its proportions permitted information storage in a language in which four chemicals, called bases, played the same role as 26 letters do in the English language.

Further, the information was stored in two long chains, each of which specified the contents of its partner. This arrangement suggested a mechanism for reproduction: The two strands of the DNA double helix parted company, and new DNA building blocks that carry the bases, called nucleotides, lined up along the separated strands and linked up. Two double helices now existed in place of one, each a replica of the original.

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