Charles Darwin knew that a critical question for his theory of evolution by natural selection was the problem of the origin of the first living organism. He suggested in a letter to a friend that "in some warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present, . . . a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes." Darwin was right, as usual, but it has taken a hundred years to fill in the details. The simplest cell alive today is very complex. After all, it has evolved through many billions of generations. We must strip away these complexities as we try to imagine how the first living cell might have worked.

Last updated May 27, 1998

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