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Origins of Life

Origins of Life

Professor Robert M. Hazen, Ph.D.
George Mason University

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Origins of Life

Course No. 1515
Professor Robert M. Hazen, Ph.D.
George Mason University
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4.5 out of 5
65 Reviews
72% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 1515
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 400 photos and graphics. Among these are photographs and illustrations that capture Earth's oldest fossils, the subterranean and oceanic environments where life possibly first emerged, the organic molecules essential to the development of life, and the groundbreaking Miller-Urey experiment of 1953. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

Four billion years ago, the infant Earth was a seething cauldron of erupting volcanoes, raining meteors, and hot noxious gases, totally devoid of life. But a relatively short time later—100 to 200 million years—the planet was teeming with primitive organisms. What happened?

Professor Robert M. Hazen, one of the nation's foremost science educators and leader of a NASA-supported team that is studying the origins of life in the universe, leads you on a 24-lecture expedition to find the answer to this momentous question.

The search takes you from path-breaking experiments in the 19th century proving that the molecules of life are no different from other chemicals, to the increasingly sophisticated understanding in the 20th century of how the chemistry of life works, to the near certainty that the 21st century will see spectacular and unpredictable developments in our understanding of how life began.

From Simple Chemistry to DNA

For all its familiarity, life is an elusive concept that is hard to define, much less explain. This course shows how scientists are systematically building a picture of the process by which chemical reactions on the early Earth eventually led to the first appearance of the DNA-protein world that remains the fundamental basis of all life today.

Dr. Hazen's own work makes him the perfect guide to present key ideas and controversies in this research, and to introduce you to the most important scientists working in the field—many of whom he knows personally. Under his guidance, you will join researchers as they seek to establish the earliest appearance of life on Earth, as they grapple to explain how it arose, and as they probe for evidence of life beyond our planet.

Dr. Hazen is a superb science teacher, whose previous course for The Teaching Company, The Joy of Science, earned this accolade in AudioFile magazine: "From the very beginning, one recognizes the gift of Professor Hazenàto make science easy to understand."

This course is crammed with fascinating experiments, surprising results, heated debates, blind alleys, and promising leads. It is a mystery story in the truest sense—one in which the clues are slowly adding up but the solution is not yet in hand.

Not Your Usual Science Course

The Origins of Life introduces you to a scientific problem that is far from solved but one which is all the more thrilling for that reason. "The most exciting aspect of science is the process of discovery," says Dr. Hazen. "The origin of life is a perfect subject to reveal that ongoing adventure that is the very essence of science."

This is not your usual science course, which traditionally presents a consensus view on known facts about the world. Instead, Professor Hazen plunges into the thick of ongoing research. "I want to take you into the field to see what the geologists see, and to puzzle with them as they try to sort out the meanings of ancient rocks. I want to take you into the laboratory and show you how we do origin experiments. I want you to see how unscripted and creative the scientific process really is. I want you to get a sense of how scientists around the world are trying to fill in the blanks of our ignorance."

"We are in the midst of a remarkably dynamic stage of research into the origin of life," he continues. "I've never seen a scientific field with so many wild new ideas."

Intriguing Theories

What are some of these ideas?

  • Life from the Bottom of the Sea: The discovery in the 1970s of flourishing communities of microbes around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea raises a fascinating possibility. Perhaps life formed in the ocean depths, far from the sunlight that nourishes life today, but protected from the withering rain of comets and meteorites that pummeled the surface of the early Earth.
  • Life from Deep in the Earth's Crust: Drilling studies show that microbes live in every possible subterranean environment—from buried desert sands, to mile-deep Antarctic ice, to pristine rock in the bowels of gold mines. Could the story of life have started underground, where water and chemically unstable rocks provided the chemical energy to power the emergence of life?
  • The Ocean Spray Model: Four billion years ago, naturally occurring organic molecules accumulated at the ocean's surface like an oil slick. The turbulence of whitecaps and crashing waves produced a continuous fine mist in which organic molecules may have reacted with water and air to produce cell-like structures that were the precursors to life.
  • Clay as Life: Fine-grained crystals of clay might, all by themselves, have been the very first life forms on Earth. According to this hypothesis, self-replicating clay crystals evolved the ability to manufacture complex biomolecules such as RNA, which eventually out-competed their clay cousins to become the dominant form of life on the planet.
  • Flat Life: In this scenario the very first self-replicating entity was a thin layer of chemical reactants that grew on mineral surfaces. This flat life spread from mineral grain to mineral grain as a coating of organic molecules too thin to see. Extensive colonies of flat life might survive even today in deeper parts of the Earth's crust.

You will also learn about classic experiments that were wild ideas in their own time, such as Louis Pasteur's demonstration in the mid-1800s that life does not spread by spontaneous generation, as was widely believed. By proving that no cellular life can occur without prior cellular life, his findings pushed back life's origins to an almost inconceivably remote time and place.

Another breakthrough occurred in 1953, when Stanley Miller showed that a flask containing a mixture of the conjectured gases in Earth's early atmosphere yielded a rich assortment of complex organic molecules when lightning-like sparks were introduced. This simple experiment confirmed an idea of Miller's mentor, Harold Urey, and was the first demonstration of a plausible life-forming process.

Inside Science

One of the most intriguing features of this course is that Dr. Hazen gives you an inside picture of how science works, relating several enthralling discoveries in his own research and that of his colleagues, including:

  • The Case of the Martian Meteorite: In 1996, NASA announced the discovery of fossil life forms in a meteorite known to be from Mars. Professor Hazen describes the exhaustive battery of tests that supported the claim. He also recounts the detailed counter-arguments marshaled by skeptical scientists.
  • The Controversy over Earth's Oldest Fossil: In 1993, paleontologist J. William Schopf reported the discovery of fossilized single cells preserved in a 3.5-billion-year-old rock from Australia—the oldest fossils ever found. Professor Hazen describes the heated scientific controversy that later erupted over the claim.
  • The Mystery of the Bourbon-Scented Reaction: In 1996, Professor Hazen and biologist Harold Morowitz collaborated on an experiment to investigate chemical reactions under extremely high pressures such as those that may have led to the origin of life deep underground. The unexpected result was a rich mixture of organic molecules that "smelled a lot like Jack Daniels!"

As you listen to this course, you will be amazed, enlightened, tantalized, and sometimes baffled. "But by the time you're through with this lecture series," promises Dr. Hazen, "you'll be poised to share in all the incredible discoveries that are about to come. And I absolutely guarantee there will be exciting discoveries in the quest for life's origin."

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Grand Question of Life’s Origins
    Professor Robert M. Hazen introduces the mystery of life's origins and outlines three reasons why this is "not your usual science course:" (1) the answer to the problem is not yet known; (2) the course emphasizes the process of science; (3) the search for life's origins is controversial in a way that other scientific studies are not. x
  • 2
    The Historical Setting of Origins Research
    This lecture reviews the history of origins research and shows how early efforts to answer this question were hampered by the absence of: relevant evidence, appropriate experimental equipment, and a theoretical understanding of emergence (the spontaneous origin of complexity out of simple systems). x
  • 3
    What Is Life?
    Life probably arose as a sequence of steps. First came the synthesis of simple organic molecules. Next came the assembly of macromolecules. Eventually, an evolving, self-replicating collection of macromolecules emerged. Each of these stages added some degree of chemical and structural complexity. x
  • 4
    Is There Life on Mars?
    You survey the quest for life on Mars from the telescopic era to the space age. While studies by spacecraft on Mars have given ambiguous results, another source of data is from meteorites that are known to have come from Mars; one of these is the subject of a controversial claim for evidence of life. x
  • 5
    Earth’s Oldest Fossils
    You continue your study of life's origins in the "top-down" approach, which works backward from known life forms toward a hypothetical common ancestor. This lecture focuses on rocks found in Australia that may contain fossilized cells that are the oldest record of living organisms on our planet. x
  • 6
    Fossil Isotopes
    Occasionally a dying organism is entombed in rock that is impermeable, allowing the original atoms and molecules of that organism to persist for hundreds of millions of years. Professor Hazen follows research on such samples, which provide intriguing evidence of early life. x
  • 7
    Molecular Biosignatures
    Even when evidence such as bones or shells is lacking, fossil elements, isotopes, and biosignature molecules point to the nature of primitive biochemical processes and give scientists their best hope for narrowing the time window for life's emergence. x
  • 8
    You turn to the "bottom-up" approach to life's origins, which starts with conditions on the primitive Earth and attempts to work out the chemical steps that must have occurred for life to arise. Crucial to this process is the new and exciting field of emergence, which this lecture explores in detail. x
  • 9
    The Miller-Urey Experiment
    In 1953, the landscape of research on the origins of life changed forever with the Miller-Urey experiment. For the first time, an experimental protocol mimicked plausible life-forming processes. As you'll see, the emergence of simple biomolecules is arguably the best understood aspect of the origins of life. x
  • 10
    Life from the Bottom of the Sea
    By the late 1970s, enough problems and questions had been raised about the Miller-Urey experiment that alternative hypotheses were proposed. One of the first and most influential of these competing models was the idea that life might have arisen in the deep ocean at a hot hydrothermal vent. x
  • 11
    The Deep, Hot Biosphere
    The hydrothermal-origins hypothesis prompted scientists to look for life in deep, warm, wet environments. And everywhere they looked—in deeply buried sediments, in oil wells, even in volcanic rocks more than a mile down—they found abundant microbes. You review the implications of these extraordinary discoveries. x
  • 12
    Experiments at High Pressure
    In order to explore the deep-origin hypothesis, scientists need a new breed of experiments. Professor Hazen gives a fascinating account of one of the first high-pressure experiments to test this theory, which took place in his own laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. x
  • 13
    More Experiments Under Pressure
    In this lecture you investigate some of the many possible directions of research to understand the possibility of life under hydrothermal conditions of high pressure. Such experiments are expensive, and Professor Hazen begins his remarks by discussing how origins research is funded. x
  • 14
    Deep Space Dust, Molten Rock, and Zeolite
    The last place you might think to look for life-forming molecules is the black vacuum of interstellar space. But new research is revealing that deep space is loaded with interesting organic molecules. You also explore two other surprisingly productive environments: igneous rocks and zeolite crystals. x
  • 15
    Macromolecules and the Tree of Life
    In this lecture Professor Hazen begins his study of the second great emergent step in the path from geochemistry to biochemistry: the emergence of macromolecules. Efforts to map the tree of life suggest that early life may have used a more diverse set of organic molecules than life does today. x
  • 16
    Lipids and Membrane Self-Organization
    Life had to develop some kind of protective membrane that isn't soluble in water. You explore two possible solutions to this problem, both of which involve fatty molecules called lipids. The amazing ability of lipids to self-organize was probably an essential step in the emergence of life. x
  • 17
    Life on Clay, Clay as Life
    The best way to assemble life's molecules in water is to "call in the rocks." In this lecture, you look at some of the ways that minerals might have played a role in selecting and organizing biomolecules. In particular, you focus on the ubiquitous group of minerals called clays. x
  • 18
    Life’s Curious Handedness
    This lecture explores an alternative approach to the selection and concentration of organic molecules that exploits the property of "handedness." Many molecules come in mirror-image pairs, like a left and right hand, and the processes of life prefer one "hand" over another. x
  • 19
    Self-Replicating Molecular Systems
    In the first of two lectures on self-replicating molecular systems, Professor Hazen shows that such systems are not necessarily alive, but they do have something like metabolism. The emergence of metabolism is a giant step toward understanding the origins of life. x
  • 20
    Günter Wächtershäuser’s Grand Hypothesis
    Which came first, metabolism or genetics? This may be the most fundamental scientific debate related to the origins of life. You examine views on each side of this question and focus on the most elaborate and comprehensive theory of metabolism-first—the iron-sulfur world of Günter Wächtershäuser. x
  • 21
    The RNA World
    Exploring the idea that life began with genetics, you study the RNA World scenario, which holds that the first life form was a self-replicating strand of RNA. There is abundant evidence that RNA is a truly ancient molecule that can fulfill the essential prebiotic chemical roles. x
  • 22
    The Pre-RNA World
    Before scientists can fully understand the origin of the RNA World, they must focus on what came before. By what chemical process did the first self-replicating, information-bearing system emerge? And if it wasn't RNA, then what was it? x
  • 23
    Natural Selection and Competition
    So far, one critical step in the transition from non-life to life has been left out—evolution. Competition helps drive evolution, and in this lecture you see how the struggle for resources among living chemical systems can lead to rapid evolution by natural selection. x
  • 24
    Three Scenarios for the Origin of Life
    Professor Hazen summarizes the course by reviewing three plausible scenarios for the origins of life: (1) life began with metabolism; (2) life began with a self-replicating strand of some genetic molecule; (3) life began as a cooperative chemical phenomenon, arising between metabolism and genetics. x

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Your professor

Robert M. Hazen

About Your Professor

Robert M. Hazen, Ph.D.
George Mason University
Dr. Robert M. Hazen is Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, and a research scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Professor Hazen earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a Ph.D. in Earth Science from Harvard University and did post-doctoral work at...
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Origins of Life is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 65.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely fascinating. Beautifully taught. I first became aware of the amount of work that has gone the “origins of life” research when I heard Professor Christian’s wonderful TGC course “Big History…”. There he allocated a significant amount of time to describing what it is about the emergence of life that science has been able to put together. In big history terms, this was referred to as a “complexity threshold”; and the emergence of life is certainly one of the striking complexity thresholds. I was not fully aware of this effort, and some of the evidence that he summarized from different research sounded fascinating. I decided that this is something that I want to understand in more depth. The current course does exactly that. Professor Hazen describes in good detail and with a fantastic scientific insight, what methods scientists from quite diverse fields used in order to understand how life in all of its complexity could spring up spontaneously from the primordial chemical soup. He divides the research into two parts: top down and bottom up. The top down approach seeks to find physical evidence of early life and to try to deduce from that evidence how life could have begun. This is the first part of the course, and Professor Hazen does go through the major finds and theories arising from them, but this definitely not the heart of the course. The lecturer himself is much more involved in research in the bottom up approach and according to his perspective, this is probably the most fruitful approach for making headway – at least at this stage. The heart of the course is devoted to the bottom up approach. Basically the idea here is targeted at seeing if different organic molecules could be spontaneously generated under primordial conditions. Some experiments showed spontaneous formation of amino acids and peptides under such realistic conditions. Some experiments tried to prove the feasibility of a sponaneous formation of metabolic systems and self-replicating systems, while still others were targeted at trying to produce spontaneous construction of a cell structure. Naturally, there were many scientific debates, some of them extremely heated, regarding what are realistic conditions of early earth and so forth. Professor Hazen was very insightful in describing the sociological dynamics between the different scientific teams involved in this research, and explaining how this interaction in many occasions ended up steering the scientific research in particular ways. This is was most pronounced in aspects that had to do with getting funding for the research. These two perspectives combined enabled to get a quite in depth and lucid understanding of the scientific accomplishments of this field of study to date (or at least to the date in which the course was released – in 2008 I believe). Professor Hazen is an exceptional lecturer. He managed to provide an in depth and fascinating description of every experiment in the scientific sense both in the terms of its technical challenges and in terms of its significance in the big picture of Origins research. On the other hand, he also provided a lot of color to the scientific stories by describing the researchers, their particular backgrounds, beliefs and interests in designing their experiments, carrying them out, and even on strategizing on where to publish them. This, I believe, was possible only because he himself actively carries out research on this, still rather narrow, field of research. This has been a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable learning experience for me.
Date published: 2017-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Great Course by Robert Hazen I just watched the Origins of Life. It's the second course I went through with Robert Hazen ( the first was the fantastic Joy of Science ) and now I'm looking forward to a third course with him: The Origin and Evolution of the Earth. There is plenty of information that a person with little background in biology can understand. But it's not dumbed down either, and I intend to watch this series again, as well as read some book on the subject.
Date published: 2017-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Made Me Even More Optimistic About Life Elsewhere video download version Dr. Hazen covers the search for the Origins of Life in 24, half-hour lecturers. He is an enthusiastic presenter, always speaking clearly and at a measured pace, obviously in love with his subject matter. I have almost no knowledge of organic chemistry, but even so I found his explanations straightforward. Even so I do think that some freshman chemistry would be a helpful base in easily understanding the subject matter. No doubt those with a biochemistry background will have no difficulty at all the the presentations. Professor Hazen's lectures are well thought out and organized both as to the overall structure of the course and the logic of the presentations in each individual lecture. Dr. Hazen enlivens his lectures with a fair amount of his personal involvement, describing in detail some of the experiments that he developed or with which he was involved. This adds immeasurably to the enjoyment and credibility of the course. I particularly liked lecture 22, "The Pre- RNA World" where he spends a great deal of time describing the efforts of a PhD candidates' struggle to develop his thesis and work through the myriad problems that all graduate students encounter as they encounter real-world problems in addition to academic ones. Throughout the course, Dr. Hazen provides his personal interaction with and interesting biographical background of many of the leading researchers in this field. Further he presents contrasting theories as to how life began with their advocates, pros and cons without bias, even though Professor Hazen acknowledges his own views. Although it was not necessarily his intent, nor the intent of the course, I came away with a reinforced view that life is likely a univerasal imperative. I now have a more strucutred view of why this is likely. Highly Recommended
Date published: 2016-12-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Stars, life, and planets I thought the first half of the lecture series was great, but the second part was a "contradiction in terms," as follows: The premise of this lecture series was that life originated on its own; however, the first part of the lecture series makes an apparently unintended logic argument for Biblical account of the Creation. In the beginning of the lecture, Dr. Hazen made a statement to the effect the universe was created. This supports Biblical creation theory. The first part of the series fascinating, about how star physiology/geology/ morphology/planet development are interconnected. However, the argument about origin of life experiments being likely to have formed on their own with the low probability of random chemicals combining to form self replicated DNA is difficult to believe. If there is no experiment to successfully replicate the formation of DNA and I have to assume this occurred due to the low probability of a single successful DNA molecule is outweighed by the immense time component allowing an almost infinite number of possible experiments...what is really being said is there is never going to be any proof of this origin of life hypothesis and such arguments will always remain theory rather than fact. For example, natural selection is fact not theory (moth experiments in Britain); while there have been no successful evolution experiments. Do not the "Laws of Entropy" show "...Most understand entropy as a measure of molecular disorder within a macroscopic system. The second law of thermodynamics states that an isolated system's entropy never decreases. How then I am expected to believe something that will always be a theory?
Date published: 2016-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A review of current ideas about origins of life This is a fascinating course that included a number of ideas and current/recent research that I was unfamiliar with. I remember listening to a nobel laureate's lecture in the 1970s on the subject and as interesting as that was, the new material is eye-opening. I think the material is presented in a way that is accessible to non-scientists; I was a career Ph.D. physical chemist (full disclosure!) but biology and paleontology are bit not my specialties. I really enjoyed the "scholar" approach that the presenter took --- that science is a process of discovery and we need to keep in mind that origin of life science is very much a work in progress. Well worth it.
Date published: 2016-06-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Better in video? Let me start by saying I think this course would be better in video. I did it in audio and it was worthwhile but a bit of a struggle. If you are very familiar with biochemistry that would help. I am not. Another issue, the professor frequently makes verbal references to his visual aids with statement like, "Look at this." I found that a bit annoying in audio. As to content I have no complaints. This course was chock full of new ideas for me. The new concepts come at a rapid pace. I seldom found myself wishing the professor would move on. I don't think the concepts themselves are terribly difficult even given my lack of familiarity with biochemistry. The professor does a fine job of presenting the material. It certainly gave me a new perspective on the subject.
Date published: 2016-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learning from faulty knowledge Very interesting how the professor walks you through the various stages of knowledge on the subject and the experiments that try to prove the various theories. He does not endorse or proposes an answer but gives you very clearly the current status of that knowledge and lack of In my opinion, excellent
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great introduction to Life's origins I listened to the audio version of these lectures while walking my dog and for the most part found it very engaging and clear, even without the visuals that he was almost constantly referencing. He did say "Look at this" at lest 50 times, if not more, so if you do not have a well developed understanding of organic chemistry, o-chem lab techniques, and the basics of cell biology then I would recommend you get the video version. That being said, he is a great teacher and story teller, and brings to life the personalities of the important researchers in this diverse field, and in that way, illuminates the very human nature of science that is often overlooked in teaching. Science is less a stepwise inevitable progress to true knowledge than a chaotic competition for dominance of ideas in the the human mind - an evolutionary story itself. If you want to find some final answer to the true origins of life, you won't find it here (or anywhere in science for that matter) , but if you want to understand the question of origins and the ideas that delve into attempts at solving this universal mystery, then this is a very good place to start. Ultimately, I would love to see a more advanced version of this lecture, aimed at folks who have already studied organic chemistry, biochemistry, and cell biology and thus dont need the distration of basic explantions about molecules contained here. If you are a biochemist or other serious student of life's origins, this series, while entertaining, will seem too basic.
Date published: 2015-12-13
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