The origin of life might seem like the ultimate cold case: no one was there to observe it and much of the relevant evidence has been lost in the intervening 3.5 billion years or so. Nonetheless, many separate lines of evidence do shed light on this event, and as biologists continue to investigate these data, they are slowly piecing together a picture of how life originated. Major lines of evidence include DNA, biochemistry, and experiments.
Origins and DNA evidence
Biologists use the DNA sequences of modern organisms to reconstruct the tree of life and to figure out the likely characteristics of the most recent common ancestor of all living things — the “trunk” of the tree of life. In fact, according to some hypotheses, this “most recent common ancestor” may actually be a set of organisms that lived at the same time and were able to swap genes easily. In either case, reconstructing the early branches on the tree of life tells us that this ancestor (or set of ancestors) probably used DNA as its genetic material and performed complex chemical reactions. But what came before it? We know that this last common ancestor must have had ancestors of its own – a long line of forebears forming the root of the tree of life – but to learn about them, we must turn to other lines of evidence.