The emergence of life: from chemical origins to synthetic biology

The emergence of life: from chemical origins to synthetic biology 

P L Luisi 

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press | 2006 | 315pp | ?41.99 (HB) | ISBN 0521821177 

Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray

Most scientists now take for granted the notion that in primeval times various kinds of inanimate matter spontaneously interacted and assembled themselves into structures of ever increasing molecular complexity. It was just such a process that eventually culminated in the creation of living organisms on Earth. But, because we are unable to reproduce this process in the laboratory, can we be certain that this is how life started? Even though this presently appears to be a highly likely scenario, we may still have residual doubts and ask, for instance, whether the emerging order and functionality violated the second law of thermodynamics or how it was all possible without the help of either enzymes or DNA. 

Such questions and their answers form an integral part of this book which has been designed not only to inform but also to stretch students. One example of the thought-provoking questions posed at the end of each chapter: If we reinsert a nucleus into a cell from which it was previously removed, does this constitute the creation of life from non-living components? 

Although this is the latest in a very long line of books dealing with the origin of life on our planet, it is a worthy successor to the bold and pioneering works of the 1920s by the Russian Alexandr Oparin and the Briton John B Haldane.  

In addition to probing in depth the relevant scientific issues, this unusual book also gets to grips with the sometimes thorny implications of research into the origins of life. Thus, there is welcome coverage of many of the philosophical and theological issues that arise; even creationist ideas are reviewed in some detail. 

The later chapters focus almost exclusively on the actual science involved and, by referring to numerous recent research findings on the subject, convincingly demonstrate that the genesis of life from a so-called ’primordial soup’ is an entirely feasible proposition. This work is a fresh and exciting new look at a now long-established field. Because it is so fascinating to read, it is a work that I feel deserves to be in every library of science.