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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 208 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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