Ocean Mysteries2021-01-20T13:54:38-06:00

Ocean Mysteries

What Monsters have really existed in the Sea? Mermaids: fact or fantasy? The Bermuda Triangle: fact or fiction? Did Life begin in the Ocean?

What Monsters have really existed in the Sea? Are there any left?

The Webster’s dictionary defines the word monster as “an animal of strange or terrifying shape” and “one unusually large for its kind.” By this definition, the creatures that dwell in the deep ocean are true monsters. Miles beneath the surface, where sunlight can no longer penetrate, exists an eerie world of cold darkness. This is the abyss. It is a world of strange and sometimes grotesque forms. Some of the animals here have evolved the ability to create their own light with a technique known as bioluminescence. They use their lights to attract prey and ward off predators. There are also creatures here of gigantic proportions. There are also animals here that get all of their nutrients from chemicals in the ocean through a process known as chemosynthesis. This is where the elusive giant squid hunts. It is also where the great sperm whale comes to feed on the giant squid. Here, within the waters of our own planet, lies an alien world of wonders.

The KrakenOver the centuries, the oceans have given birth to many myths, legends, mysteries and events still not completely explained by mankind. Contrary to popular belief, the sailors of Columbus’s day did not think they would sail right off the edge of the earth. They were, however, apprehensive about what they would find in their travels. Mistakes about marine life have ranged from inaccurate assumptions about the behavior of known species to fanciful depictions of animals that “might” exist.

Hercules battled with a hydra in ancient Greek mythology, and this imaginary animal has suffered from a rotten reputation ever since. Unfortunately, the hydra has a living relative, of sorts: the octopus. Even now, misconceptions persist about the octopus (also called the “devil fish”), and it has been doomed to play the villain in more than one B movie. Although this illustration only shows seven heads, the hydra was said to have nine, and two new ones would appear whenever one was chopped off.

Strange as it looks by today’s standards, this picture of a dissected head of a giant white shark actually marked significant progress in marine biology. For years, fossilized shark teeth were believed to be tongues of serpents turned to stone by St. Paul, and hence were named glossopetrae, or “tongue stones”. Niels Stensen correctly identified tongue stones as shark teeth.

Alexander Winchell suggested that, “the unexplored depths of the ocean conceal the forms of octopods that far surpass in magnitude any of the species known to science.” Winchell was right on both counts.

In the 16th century, two naturalists, Rondelet and Pierre Belon, produced descriptions of animals they termed the Sea Monk, or monk-fish. Centuries later, a very talented naturalist, Japetus Steenstrup, gave a presentation in which he compared Rondelet’s illustration and Belon’s illustration to the likeness of a squid captured in 1853. He also took into consideration a 16th-century description of the Sea Monk by Conrad Gesner. Steenstrup made an amazing deduction: “Could we, given these bits of information of how the Monk was conceived at that time, come so near to it that we could recognize to which of nature’s creatures it should most probably be assigned? The Sea Monk is firstly a cephalopod.”

The Giant Squid
On a December day in 1848, the sailing ship Pekin was becalmed off the Cape of Good Hope near Southern Africa when a crew member spotted a strange creature in the water. Careful examination of the animal by use of a telescope revealed it to be snake-like, with a large head and shaggy mane.

Only two months before the HMS Daedulus had reported seeing a sea serpent in that very same region. Amid great excitement a small boat, it’s crew prepared to capture the animal, was lowered into the water. The Captain, Frederic Smith, watched from a distance, with concern for the safety of his men, as the small boat approached the creature. To the Captain’s surprise the animal did not move at all as the boat drew near. He was even more surprised when the crew of the boat proceeded to tow the “creature” back.

The sea serpent turned out to be a twenty foot long piece of floating seaweed with a root shaped like a head and neck. Could the Daedulus sea serpent been of similar origin?

Judging distance, size and motion of an object in the sea is extremely difficult. Objects on land can be compared to nearby trees and boulders. In the water only the waves offer a clue to scale and the size of waves vary enormously depending on weather conditions.

The movement of the waves can also suggest motion where there is none. Arthur Adams, a ship’s surgeon in the 1860’s, spotted what appeared to be a mysterious creature moving through the water by using lateral undulations of it’s body. His ship’s course was altered to intercept the animal and capture it. When they approached the thing Adam’s wrote:

“By this time, however, a closer and more critical inspection had taken place, and the supposed sea monster had turned himself into a long, dark root, gnarled and twisted, of a tree, secured to the moorings of a fishing net, with a strong tide passing it rapidly, and thus giving it an apparent life-like movement and serpentine aspect.”

The Daedulus affair might also be explained by an abandoned native canoe painted like a snake. L. Sprague de Camp suggested the owners of the canoe may have harpooned a large sea animal, like a whale shark, and they were either spilled into the sea when the animal surfaced under the boat, or jumped in panic when they could not cut the line dragging the canoe.

The Oarfish
One unusual, real creature that might be mistaken for a sea monster is the oarfish. The oarfish, Regalecus glesne, is a strange eel-like animal that has been measured at up to 25 feet in length. Some reports have described specimens twice that size. The oarfish is bright silver in color and has a high, bright red crest of spikes running down the back of it’s snake-like body. It’s strange startling appearance has led it to be identified as a monster on at least one occasion: Two men were gathering seaweed on the coast of Bermuda in 1860 when they came across a serpent-like creature stranded in the rocks. They killed it and they animal was reported as a sea serpent until a naturalist eventually showed up and identified the creature for what it really was.

An unusual species of frilled shark, Chlamydoselachus anguineus, might also be taken for a sea serpent. Like the oarfish it is eel-shaped. It has a single dorsal fin placed well back along the body which can appear as a mane. The frilled shark has an ancient history and is almost a living fossil. It would truly be a likely candidate for a sea serpent if it was only a little larger. So far the largest known frilled shark was only six feet nose-to-tale. If there is a larger relative of this animal swimming in the seas it might well be identified as a sea serpent.

In 1880 Captain S. W. Hanna netted a long eel-like shark that measured some 25 feet. While not matching the description of Chlamydoselachus anguineus exactly, it probably is a close relative and suggests there may be some giant frilled sharks in the sea that could be taken for sea serpents.

One dangerous candidate as a sea monster is the saltwater crocodile. These creatures, living in the India Ocean and the area around southeast Asia and Australia have been measured to lengths of 18 feet and weighing almost a ton. Unconfirmed reports indicate they may get as long as thirty feet. They are hungry, aggressive and often attack people.

The giant squid may account for some sea serpent sightings too. Giant squids probably qualify as sea monsters just as they are: Growing up to fifty feet long with ten arms and eyes over a foot in diameter. If the cone shaped squid head was sticking out of the water near or close to a visible arm the squid might look like a serpent head and tail from a distance. (A famous serpent sighting off of Greenland, by Hans Egede, in 1745 may be explained this way). Also a single tentacle with a club of suckers on the end might look like the head and neck of a Pleisosaur.

In 1875 the barque Pauline spotted a sperm whale with a snake-like creature wrapped around it’s mid-section. The crew reported this sea serpent eventually dragged the whale down to it’s death. More likely the “snake” was the arm of a large squid in battle with the whale.

Pygmy Seahorses

Even mundane sea animals may be mistaken for sea monsters. Fish or dolphins traveling together in a line may appear as a series of undulating humps with dorsal fins. Even a mass of low flying birds skimming across the water at a distance have been mistaken for a single sea serpent.

The basking shark is one creature that is more likely to be mistaken for a sea monster after it is dead, rather than when it was alive. Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the sea and grow to lengths of 40 feet. Like the great blue whale they are harmless filter feeders with enormous mouths. The shark skims the surface of ocean eating tiny floating plankton. The water exits the shark’s mouth through large gill slits on the side of the head.

Because the gills of the basking shark rot quickly after death the carcass can give the appearance of having a long, narrow neck (like a plesiosaur) without the head. Several basking shark remains have been misidentified as sea monsters.

Some sea monster reports may not involve just unusual creatures, but usual conditions. Right before a storm at sea, air of two different temperatures can form layers just above the surface of the sea. Perhaps seven or eight feet above the waves the different density of the two layers can cause light to bounce forming a mirage. In this case the mirage causes objects to be elongated, as if by a fun house mirror, vertically, but not horizontally. Seals, whales and dolphins breaking the surface under these conditions will appear as thin, tall, unknown creatures.

Norse men often spotted these creatures and took their appearance as an omen warning of an impending storm. Because of the strange atmospheric conditions, rather than anything supernatural, this warning was accurate.


The Mermaids: fact or fantasy?

Stories of Mermaids have been told for centuries, be it in the form of folklores, legends or fairy tales. Images of this creature have plagued artists and writers in their efforts to bring to life the mystery, beauty, and yes, eroticism of the mermaid to their audiences. Some still claim, even today, that they exist: see FIRST-EVER PHOTOS OF A MERMAID! Image Of Half-Woman Half-Fish Dazzles Tourists In Hawaii!

The mermaid and merman legends begin with the worship of gods as have many mythologies. This information has been divided into three different categories to help save time in your browsing and to establish simple guidelines to see different periods in the mythology of mermaids. The earliest representations and descriptions of these now well-known creatures can be traced back as far as the eighth century BC.

The Three Stages of the Mermaids Mythology

  1. Merfolk as Gods – a look at the birth of the mermaid mythology and how it began as pagan water deities and supernatural female water beings.
  2. Merfolk and Christianity – the role of the mermaid mythology changed significantly with the growth of the Christian Church, this is a look at how and why the myth survived when so many other pagan deities didn’t and what the new role of the mermaid was.
  3. Merfolk and the Rise of Science – for a long time the mermaid was believed to have existed even by educated men, with the rise of science and the Enlightenment the tides turned back to try and disprove the existence of such a creature as the mermaid. This being done the role of mermaids changed yet again.

Merfolk as Gods

The Babylonians were known to worship a sea-god called Oannes, or Ea. Oannes was reputed to have risen from the Erythrean Sea and taught to man the arts and sciences. In the Louvre today can be seen an eighth century wall-scene depicting Oannes as a merman, with the fish-like tail and the upper body of a man.

The Syrians and the Philistines were also known to have worshiped a Semitic mermaid moon-goddess. The Syrians called her Atargatis while the Philistines knew her as Derceto. It is not unusual or surprising that this moon-goddess was depicted as a mermaid as the tides ebbed and flowed with the moon then as it does now and this was incorporated into the god-like personifications that we find in their art and the ancient literature. Atargatis is one of the first recorded mermaids and the legend says that her child Semiramis was a normal human and because of this Atargatis was ashamed and killed her lover. Abandoning the infant she became wholly a fish.

However, not all ancient water gods or spiritual personifications took on the form of a mermaid or a merman all of the time. Water-nymphs for example can be mistaken for mermaids, they are beautiful in their appearance and are also musically talented, which mermaids are well known for, be it their singing or playing of a musical instrument. Sirens too are forever being mistaken for mermaids. Even the ancient writers and medieval Bestiary writers would get the two confused or mention only one when in fact both have to be mentioned to make sense of the literatures and archaeological evidence. This is discussed again below, where one can also see the result of a siren/mermaid illustration. The Siren and the Mermaid are two separate entities, one having the upper body of a young woman and the lower body of a bird, the other the upper body of a young woman and the lower body of a fish.

The Indians, amongst their many gods, worshiped one group of water-gods known as the Asparas, who were celestial flute-playing water-nymphs.

In Japanese and Chinese legends there were not only mermaids but also sea-dragons and the dragon-wives. The Japanese mermaid known as Ningyo was depicted as a fish with only a human head; where as the Polynesian mythology includes a creator named Vatea who was depicted as half-human form and half-porpoise.

Greek and Roman mythology is often placed together as the two are very similar and it is in the literature from these cultures that one finds the first literary description of the mermaid, and indeed the mermen. Homer mentions the Sirens during the voyage of Odysseus but he fails to give a physical description. The image seen here shows an old black and white film of Homer’s tale depicting the sirens in mermaid form. Ovid on the other hand writes that the mermaids were born from the burning galleys of the Trojans where the timbers turned into flesh and blood and the ‘green daughters of the sea’.

Poseidon and Neptune were often depicted as half-man and half-fish but the most popular motif of the ancient world that depicts mermen was the representations of the tritons, TRITON being the son of the powerful sea-god. A detail of the vase shown and other typical triton motifs can be seen from these periods in the Art Gallery. Besides the vase is the trident, known to have been carried by the sea-god and thought to be magical, the figure of Poseidon in the film Jason and the Argonauts, 1973 is shown with the trident. Specimens of tritons in classical times were said to be found at Tanagara and Rome, according to Pausanias, it is presumed by scholars today that they were fakes, just like those mermaid remains that one could find in the later nineteenth century freak shows, but more information on these later. The Nereids, who were the daughters of Nereus and the Oceanides, who were associated with Ocean and the Naiads who lived in the fresh waters of the ancient world, while being water creatures were depicted as humans and not merpeople.

The British Isles too had their fair share of merfolk mythology. The Cornish knew mermaids as Merrymaids; the Irish knew them as Merrows or Muirruhgach and some sources write that they lived on dry land below the sea and had enchanted caps that allowed them to pass through the water without drowning, while the women were very beautiful the men had red noses, were piggy eyed, with green hair and teeth and a penchant for brandy.

The neck are to be found in Scandanavia, along with the Havfrue (merman) and the Havmand (mermaid), the neck however were able to live in both salt- and fresh-water. The Norwegian mermaid known as Havfine were believed to have very unpredictable tempers. Some were known to be kind, others to be incredibly cruel; it was considered unlucky to view one of these havfine.

The German Mythologies of mermaids are plenty. There are the Meerfrau; the Nix and the Nixe who were the male and female fresh-water inhabitants and it was believed that they were treacherous to men. The nixe lured men to drown while the nix could be in the form of an old dwarfish character or as a golden-haired boy and in Iceland and Sweden could take the form of a centaur. The nix also loved music and could lure people to him with his harp, if he was in the form of a horse he would tempt people to mount him and then dash into the sea to drown them. While he sometimes desired a human soul he would often demand annual human sacrifices. There was also a more elvin kind of Nixies that would sometimes appear in the market, she could be identified by the corner of her apron being wet. If they paid a good price it would be an expensive year but if they paid a low price the prices for that year would remain cheap. In the Rhine were to be found the Lorelei from which the town took its name. The Germans also knew the Melusine as a double-tailed mermaid as did the British heraldry as well. There is a double-tailed mermaid to be found in the Art Gallery.

Russian mythology includes the daughters of the Water-King who live beneath the sea; the water-nymph that drowns swimmers known as the Rusalka and the male water-spirit known as the Vodyany who followed sailors and fishermen.

The Africans believed the tales of a fish-wife and river-witches. What we have seen here is the beginnings of the mermaid mythology that starts with the merman depictions of water-deities and other such pagan deities. The stories of mermaids as one may think of today, were formed after the rise of Christianity.

Merfolk and Christianity

There is a theory that during the suppression of pagan deities the mermaid and other minor supernatural beings were not seen as a threat to the growth and popularity of Christian beliefs. Some writers even go so far as to believe that the Church actually believed in the mermaid mythology, and for two particular reasons; the first is that the mermaid served as a moral emblem of sin, the femme fatale label we know so well was nurtured with this form of thinking; and the second was the quality of evidence from contemporary and ancient authors on the existence of mermaids added to this ‘belief’ the Church found in mermaids.

The symbol of the mermaid with her comb and mirror in hand seems to first be depicted during the Middle Ages. This came to represent to the Church vanity and female beauty which could cause the destruction of men. And so the mermaid mythology turned from that of near godlike status, including the fear that the sirens brought, to one of aesthetic values. The mermaid became a focus for misogynists and as thus rather than causing fear in the laity the mermaid became even more fascinating.

The Bestiaries of the early middle ages included the siren and not the mermaid. As the two creatures became confused in popular beliefs and cultures so too did the bestiary writers confuse the two, as can be seen in the above illustration of the siren, complete with a mermaids tail. Mermaids were well known in the bestiaries of Physiologus and his predecessors, where they compiled the zoological information of ‘real’ animals. Mermaid were believed to exist even by the most educated men.

In 1403 a mermaid was apparently found stranded in the mud after a storm in West Friesland. She was then taken, clothed and fed ordinary food. Some say that she lived for fifteen years in capture, trying to escape constantly; she was also taught to kneel before the crucifix and spin but she was never able to speak.

Raphael Holinshed, in his chronicles of 1587 wrote that in the reign of either John or Henry II, some fishers of Oreford in Suffolk, caught a man-shaped fish, who would not or could not speak, ate fish be it raw or cooked and finally escaped after two months, back to the sea. There are detailed accounts of recorded sightings that are mostly from the 1800’s that can be read in the Sightings page.

In literature the mermaid began to be used as a description of women, rather than an identification of the creature herself. The mermaid had become a metaphor! Chaucer takes the mermaid and uses her as a scholarly metaphor for beautiful but dangerous song. Shakespeare is known to have used such a device in his Comedy of Errors.

Merfolk and the Rise of Science

With the growth of science, the fantastic became childish amongst the writers of the growing educated, especially during the eighteenth century, but began to flourish again with the Romantic movement at the turn of this century. It was also the time however for the scientifically-minded to do their utmost to dispel the myth of the mermaid, claiming that all the recorded sightings were simply men who’d been at sea too long and wanting to believe, and so when a seal, porpoise, dugong or manatee was spotted from the ship they’d swear they’d seen a mermaid.

It it from the nineteenth century that the reported sightings are so numerous. The sightings page shows where the sightings were and also the accompanying reports. Prominent, well-respected people writing in prominent papers conflict with the scientists apathy to the existence of such a fantastical creature.

Children’s stories are filled with mermaids again, and this time they are written down and published. The mermaid figures in art once again allowing the artist to portray the division within human nature of the “animal” sexual nature and the intellectual thinking; represented by the tail of the mermaid and that human part of her that wishes to gain a soul. This is the first period the mention of the mermaid longing for a human soul is found in the history of the mermaid. The prime example being The Little Mermaid by Hans Andersen found in the Faerietales page, where the young mermaid gains a souls through her faithfulness. The mermaid is also seen as an elemental being and other water-beings are written about, such as The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. The theme of mermaids longing for a mortal man is continued and broadened which can be seen especially in the plays of Peter Blackmore, Miranda and the sequel Mad About Men which were adapted to film and starred Glynis Johns.

It is also the time of frauds and there were many in America during the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the most famous one being the Feegee mermaid. Japanese freak shows too were notorious for their “mermaids”, that merely consisted of the torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish stitched together and advertised as “mermaid corpses.”

It is not until the twentieth century that the mermaid is tossed back and forth between those that believe, or want to believe, and those that stand behind their logic and scientific proof that a creature such as the mermaid simply cannot exist. A wonderful film of these two meeting is the film Splash, with Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks. The mermaid becomes a symbol of fun and fantasy rather than an accepted part of cultural tradition and awe. She is seen as a figure of eroticism mixed with fear of the unknown, or the animal side of her nature. It is a great marketing tool for toys, cartoons, soft-porn, and women’s swim wear. No matter how the mermaid is used or what role she plays she will always retain her mysterious air. Perhaps the next move is a more feminine one, bringing back the myth of the mermaid protecting women, or the soul of the woman drowned before her natural time of death….

Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle: fact or fiction?

A region of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, where disappearances of ships and planes not only continue but continue to defy explanation.

“It was Halloween, 1991. Radar controllers checked and rechecked what they had just seen. The scope was blank in a spot now. Everywhere else all seemed normal. Routine traffic was proceeding undisturbed, in their vectors, tracked and uninterrupted. But just moments earlier they had been tracking a Grumman Cougar jet. The pilot was John Verdi. He and trained co-pilot, Paul Lukaris, were on a flight toward Tallahassee. Moments before Verdi’s voice had crackled over the receiver at the flight center: “Uh, this is November two four Whiskey Juliet (N24WJ). I am at, uh, two five three zero zero. Request ascent two niner zero. Over.”

Permission was quickly granted. The turbo jet was then seen ascending from 25,300 feet to its cruising altitude of 29,000. All seemed normal.

They were still ascending. Verdi had not yet rogered reaching his new altitude. Radar continued to track the Cougar until, for some unknown reason, it simply faded away. Verdi and Lukaris answered no more calls to respond. They had sent no MAYDAY to indicate a problem. Read-outs of the radar observations confirmed the unusual: The Cougar had not been captured at all descending or falling to the sea. Frankly, it had just vanished while climbing; it simply faded away. One sweep they were there… the next?”

Gian J. Quasar, author of Into the Bermuda Triangle says: “Approaching the subject from the back door, so to speak, free of the hype and public forum, has yielded more startling information. For instance, no more than a few disappearances of airplanes have been reported in the last 2 decades, yet mystery has struck with skillful hands. Searches of the database of National Transportation Safety Board reveal some 75 aircraft have gone missing. Projecting Coast Guard statistics on missing boats is truly mind boggling, perhaps reaching over 2,000. Often when faced with what these reports contain, I have come away badly jolted. It has caused me to revise several well-known cases, and has made it possible to present accurate accounts of what has transpired in the last 20 years. These last, I must presume, are here to the public presented for the first time since I know of no other research done in this period.”

The Theories

There have been numerous “theories” (more correctly hypotheses) concerning the Bermuda Triangle; Magnetic Variation, Vortex Kinesis, Methane Hydrates, Time & Being and The Hutchison Effect.

“Although the Bermuda Triangle looks like just a bucket of water when compared to all the oceans of the world, it does in fact cover approximately 1,500,000 square miles, roughly 500 thousand square leagues of sea.”

History of the Devil’s Triangle

“The region involved, a watery triangle bounded roughly by Florida, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico, measures less than a thousand miles on any one side.” …so George X. Sand introduced the Triangle to his readers in October 1952 in a short article for Fate magazine, entitled “Sea Mystery at our Back Door.”

Questions and Answers

If you have questions about the Bermuda Triangle they are likely answered here

Bermuda Triangle Message Boards

Anomalocaris fossil

Did Life begin in the Ocean?

Let’s begin at the beginning…

Origins of the Universe

  • Big Bang roughly 10-18 billion years ago
  • Formulation of Carbon and higher elements in the first generation of stars
    • Hydrogen, Helium main elements in the early universe

Formation of the Earth and Solar system

  • Earth roughly 4.7 billion years old
  • Earth’s crust becomes stable by 3.9 billion years ago
  • Life appears around 3.6-3.7 billion years ago

Reducing versus oxidizing atmosphere

  • Current atmosphere is oxygen rich (Oxidizing)
  • Breaks down Organic molecules
    • One manifestation of this is fire
  • Early Earth’s atmosphere was slightly reducing
    • Organic molecules are much more stable
    • little free O2

The Appearance of Life

Beginnings of Life: Khan Academy

The timetable

  • 3.6-3.7 billion years ago: appearance of life
  • 2.5 billion years ago oxygen-forming photosynthesis
  • ~2.2 billion years ago: aerobic respiration
  • ~1.5 billion years ago: first evidence of fossil eukaryotes

The appearance of Life: anaerobic heterotrophes

  • 3.6-3.7 billion years ago: appearance of life
  • Most likely first cells were anaerobic, heterotrophic bacteria
    • anaerobic = does not require free oxygen
    • heterotrophic = does not make its own food

The next step: anaerobic autotrophs

  • Were able to fix CO2
    • turning CO2 + H into organic molecules
  • Hydrogen donors initially were H2, H2S

Energy sources for autotrophics

  • First used chemical energy from elements in surrounding medium
    • chemoautotrophs (deep-sea vents)
  • As this energy ran low, evolved ability to capture energy from light
    • Photoautotrophs

Life’s first major crisis

  • Easy hydrogen donors (H2, H2S) used up quickly
  • Key innovation around 2.5 billion years
    • oxygen-forming photosynthesis (cyanobacteria)
    • Use of H2O as a hydrogen donor

Life’s second major crisis

  • Huge amounts of toxic O2 released
  • Most of the initial O2 was locked up by iron in the oceans and soils (Banded iron formations) = rust
  • More O2 from water keep coming, leading to an O2 rich atmosphere

Life’s next major innovation

  • Aerobic respiration
    • much more efficient than anaerobic respiration
    • Allowed larger cells and the future potential of multicellular organisms

The Fossil Record relating to the Origins of Life

Map of important fossil locations

Fossil bacterial series showing evidence of cell division

Early cells arranged in a filament (Warawoona, 3.5 BYA)

Stromatolites (mounds of photosynthetic cyanobacteria) 2.7 billion years old.

  • Stromatolites fossil from Warrawoona

  • Intact stromatolites present today in Shark’s Bay

Experimental studies of the origins of life

  • Early thinking on the origin of life (i.e., the first cell)
    • Spontaneous generation
      • Pasteur’s experiments (1860’s)
    • Oparin, Haldane (1920’s)
    • Notion of a primeval soup
  • Key steps in the origins of life
    • Formation of complex organic molecules
    • Self-replicating systems
    • Protein synthesis
      • DNA is the genetic material, but it requires proteins to replicate
    • Compartmentalization: the first cell
  • Origins of complex organic molecules
    • nucleosynthesis in stars to form complex molecules
    • molecular clouds
    • A very significant fraction of the Earth’s carbon came from extensive cometary bombardment on the primitive Earth
  • Model systems for prebiotic evolution
    • Miller-Urey experiment
    • Fox’s microspheres
    • Cech’s Catalytic RNA
  • The Miller-Urey experiment (1953)
    • Showed that complex organic molecules (amino acids) can be built up from very simple organic molecules (such as methane)

    Compartmentalization: Fox’s microspheres

    • In the 1970’s, Fox showed that by heating certain proteins, microspheres form spontaneously

    Catalytic RNAs

    • Self-cleaving rRNA
    • RNA can both cleave itself as well as polymerase itself
    • the solution to the chicken versus egg problem
      • don’t need proteins as RNA can act as an enzyme
  • The first cells may have had RNA genomes
    • DNA synthesis requires RNA primer
    • RNA, not DNA used in protein synthesis
    • Reverse transcriptase RNA –> DNA

Recent Research

Group I Self-Splicing Introns
“The question of life’s origins is one of the oldest and most difficult in biology. The answer, if ever known, will not be a single statement of fact but rather an extended chronology, beginning with the formation of the Earth and ending with the appearance of cellular organisms. This problem is confounded because there is little direct evidence of the events that occurred during roughly the first thousand million years of Earth’s history. The oldest rocks that provide clues regarding life’s origins are 3.6 x 109 years old, and by that time cellular life seems already to have been well established. However, remnants of ancient organisms may be found in the form of “molecular fossils” within the genomes of modern organisms. One such candidate might be self-catalytic RNA molecules which can serve as hereditary molecules as well as exhibit some properties of proteins. The discovery of self-catalytic RNA of molecules has lead to a revival of interest in the idea that there was a time, before the origin of protein synthesis, when life was based entirely on RNA. One such class of catalytic molecules are the Group I self-splicing introns.” – Sandra A. Nierzwicki-Bauer

Studies on the Origins of Life: The Formation of the RNA World
“The discovery of ribozymes suggests that RNA was the most important biopolymer in the first life since it can both store genetic information and catalyze reactions of other RNA molecules. One scenario for the origins of life is the formation of an RNA world from prebiotic molecules. It is postulated that RNA served as both the catalyst and the site of information storage in this RNA world which eventually evolved into the contemporary DNA and protein world. In this scenario, RNA formed spontaneously from the monomers produced by prebiotic synthesis and this RNA had the ability to catalyze its own replication.

A likely route to RNA from compounds formed spontaneously on the primitive Earth, is by their selective adsorption on a mineral which catalyzes their condensation to polymers. At Rensselaer we discovered that montmorillonite clay catalyzes the conversion of activated RNA monomers to oligomers. The role of monomer structure, phosphate activating group and mineral catalysis on the formation of RNA under prebiotic and conditions is being explored.” – James P. Ferris

Photochemistry of Planetary Atmospheres and the Origins of Life
“Photochemical reactions, driven by solar UV, are believed to be the principal source of complex molecules observed in most planetary and lunar atmospheres. For example, photochemical transformations of the simple components of the atmospheres of Jupiter and Titan result in the formation of more complex organic molecules. It is proposed that knowledge of the photochemical routes by which organics are formed in other planetary atmospheres provides insight into photoproducts that were formed in the atmosphere of the primitive Earth.” – James P. Ferris

Sea Monsters that Weren’t
Strange Science: Sea Monsters
The New York Center for Studies of the Origin of Life
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona
W. F. Loomis, 1988. Four billion years. Sinauer. — A biochemical viewpoint
W. Day. 1984. Genesis on planet earth, 2nd ed. Yale. — A more general treatment
R. Cowen. 1990. History of life. Blackwell.


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