Life from an RNA World: The Ancestor Within

Overview

A majority of evolutionary biologists believe that we now can envision our biological predecessors—not the first, but nearly the first, living beings on Earth. Life from an RNA World is about these vanished forebears, sketching them in the distant past just as their workings first began to resemble our own. The advances that have made such a pursuit possible are rarely discussed outside of bio-labs. So here, says author Michael Yarus, is an album for interested non-biologists, an introduction to our relatives in ...

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Overview

A majority of evolutionary biologists believe that we now can envision our biological predecessors—not the first, but nearly the first, living beings on Earth. Life from an RNA World is about these vanished forebears, sketching them in the distant past just as their workings first began to resemble our own. The advances that have made such a pursuit possible are rarely discussed outside of bio-labs. So here, says author Michael Yarus, is an album for interested non-biologists, an introduction to our relatives in deep time, slouching between the first rudimentary life on Earth and the appearance of more complex beings.

The era between, and the focus of Yarus’ work, is called the RNA world. It is RNA (ribonucleic acid) long believed to be a mere biologic copier and messenger, that offers us this glimpse into our ancient predecessors. To describe early RNA creatures, here called “ribocytes” or RNA cells, Yarus deploys some basics of molecular biology. He reviews our current understanding of the tree of life, examines the structure of RNA itself, explains the operation of the genetic code, and covers much else—all in an effort to reveal a departed biological world across billions of years between its heyday and ours.

Courting controversy among those who question the role of “ribocytes”—citing the chemical fragility of RNA and the uncertainty about the origin of an RNA synthetic apparatus—Yarus offers an invaluable vision of early life on Earth. And his book makes that early form of life, our ancestor within, accessible to all of us.

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Editorial Reviews

Nature

Life from an RNA World is an unconventional book about RNA. Rather than opening with the central dogma and attendant teachings on molecular biology, Yarus uses evolution as a gateway. He then takes us on a journey through evolutionary time, concentrating on the roles of the various forms of RNA...[He] is a proficient guide.
— Tim Harris

Chemistry World

Michael Yarus' book is a very enjoyable read, be the reader a well informed molecular biologist, or a lay person...Surely this book will highlight and increase the interest in the RNA world; raising the awareness that we are all, after all, the children of RNA.
— Michael Ladomery

Science

Although precise historical details of the particular origin of life on Earth are probably unknowable, most scientists agree that a world existed in which RNA performed the duties of both genes and enzymes. This RNA world in turn evolved into the DNA-RNA-protein world of today. Michael Yarus's Life from an RNA World offers an engaging introduction to the subject...Recent discoveries make Yarus's book particularly timely, especially as a light-hearted introduction for scientifically minded readers outside the field. His chatty prose conveys the voice of a tour guide on a journey through the RNA world, introducing essential evolutionary and molecular biology and pointing out must-not-miss attractions. Even members of the origins-of-life community may appreciate his whimsical explanations of familiar phenomena.
— Irene A. Chen

Thomas Cech
Yarus captivates with skilled character development -- but here, the characters are the prebiotic molecules that gave rise to everything that has ever lived or is alive today on our planet.
Nature - Tim Harris
Life from an RNA World is an unconventional book about RNA. Rather than opening with the central dogma and attendant teachings on molecular biology, Yarus uses evolution as a gateway. He then takes us on a journey through evolutionary time, concentrating on the roles of the various forms of RNA...[He] is a proficient guide.
Chemistry World - Michael Ladomery
Michael Yarus' book is a very enjoyable read, be the reader a well informed molecular biologist, or a lay person...Surely this book will highlight and increase the interest in the RNA world; raising the awareness that we are all, after all, the children of RNA.
Science - Irene A. Chen
Although precise historical details of the particular origin of life on Earth are probably unknowable, most scientists agree that a world existed in which RNA performed the duties of both genes and enzymes. This RNA world in turn evolved into the DNA-RNA-protein world of today. Michael Yarus's Life from an RNA World offers an engaging introduction to the subject...Recent discoveries make Yarus's book particularly timely, especially as a light-hearted introduction for scientifically minded readers outside the field. His chatty prose conveys the voice of a tour guide on a journey through the RNA world, introducing essential evolutionary and molecular biology and pointing out must-not-miss attractions. Even members of the origins-of-life community may appreciate his whimsical explanations of familiar phenomena.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674060715
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2011
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 278,821
  • Product dimensions: 8.04 (w) x 5.52 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Yarus is Professor Emeritus, Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado.
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Table of Contents

  • Introduction to Your Ancestor

  1. Before We Begin: A Voluntary Chapter
  2. Framing the Problem: The Buffalo and the Bacterium
  3. The Big Tree: No Jackalopes Please
  4. A Dance of Atoms
  5. Allegro Agitato: The Origin of Life
  6. The Winds That Blow through the Starry Ways
  7. Tornados in a Junkyard
  8. Between Genomes and Creatures
  9. A Thumbnail Molecular Biology
  10. RNA Structure: A Tape with a Shape
  11. Intimations of an RNA World
  12. The Experimentally Impaired Sciences
  13. Test Tube RNA Evolution: First Light
  14. Selection Amplification: Interrogating RNA’s Possibilities
  15. RNA Duplication: Replicase Activity in Real RNAs
  16. RNA Capabilities and the Origins of Translation
  17. The Quest for the Peptidyl Transferase
  18. A Language Much Older Than Hieroglyphics: The Genetic Code
  19. Assume a Spherical Cow: The Ribocyte
  20. The Future of the RNA World

  • Lexicon
  • Index

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  • Posted June 16, 2012

    An excellent introduction to the merits of the RNA world hypothesis

    Michael Yarus presents a very convincing argument that RNA once dominated the inner workings of early life on Earth, citing various experiments that have demonstrated the versatility of modern biological RNAs and those evolved through SELEX, a method that he mentions often and seems to promote. Be forewarned, this is not a book about the origin of life, but rather its early evolution. Yarus himself admits that RNA may not have been the first genetic material, and the subjects of this book--so called "ribocytes"--were not the founders of life. They were instead early pioneers. The reading is informative but accessible, lacking the intimidating formality of a textbook or scientific paper. The chapters are short, and all of the information therein is relatively easy to understand. As an undergraduate biology major, I have yet to take an organic chemistry class, and even though it has been suggested that the later chapters would require some extensive knowledge of organic chemistry, I did not find this to be the case. Even if one does encounter an unfamiliar term or idea, it is easily explained in the provided lexicon or a simple Google search. In conclusion, Yarus's book is an interesting glimpse into the speculative nature of our distant ancestors whose signature, despite erosion by the sands of time, still remains in each cell alive today on Earth.

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