How did life begin and evolve on Earth, and has it evolved elsewhere in the Solar System?
Microbial life forms have been discovered on Earth that can survive and even thrive at extremes of high and low temperature and pressure, and in conditions of acidity, salinity, alkalinity, and concentrations of heavy metals that would have been regarded as lethal just a few years ago. These discoveries include the wide diversity of life near sea–floor hydrothermal vent systems, where some organisms live essentially on chemical energy in the absence of sunlight. Similar environments may be present elsewhere in the solar system.
Understanding the processes that lead to life, however, is complicated by the actions of biology itself. Earth’s atmosphere today bears little resemblance to the atmosphere of the early Earth, in which life developed; it has been nearly reconstituted by the bacteria, vegetation, and other life forms that have acted upon it over the eons. Fortunately, the solar system has preserved for us an array of natural laboratories in which we can study life’s raw ingredients — volatiles and organics — as well as their delivery mechanisms and the prebiotic chemical processes that lead to life. We can also find on Earth direct evidence of the interactions of life with its environments, and the dramatic changes that life has undergone as the planet evolved. This can tell us much about the adaptability of life and the prospects that it might survive upheavals on other planets.