The chapters of this book are derived from invited, one-hour review talks, as well as a few invited shorter talks, given at the conference. These constitute an outstanding set of lectures delivered by masters of fields such as planetary science, evolutionary biology, and the interdisciplinary links between the two. One of our major goals was to create a volume that would be useful for teaching an interdisciplinary audience at the level of senior undergraduate or junior graduate students. Our intent was to capture the exciting interdisciplinary research atmosphere that attendees experienced at the conference and, thereby, create a volume that is an excellent resource for research. The OI plans to use this volume for a third year undergraduate course about the origins of life, which will be offered for the first time in 2006. The authors were all aware of these two aspects of the book as they prepared their manuscripts. To accommodate and educate a broad interdisciplinary audience, we have tried to ensure that technical jargon is kept to a minimum without compromising scientific accuracy and a clear analysis of the important principles and latest results at an advanced scientific level.
The editors made every effort to keep the authors of individual chapters informed of the content of related chapters. All of the chapters in this book were peer reviewed by arm's-length experts in relevant fields. In addition to receiving useful referee reports, the authors also received comprehensive comments from the editors designed to help integrate their chapters with other related chapters. We hoped by these means to create an integrated book of the highest scientific standard and not just a collection of unrelated review talks that are typical of many conference proceedings. The users of this book will be the ultimate judges of how well we succeeded in attaining this goal.
There are three parts of this book. The first takes the reader from the domain of planetary systems and how they are formed, through the origins of biomolecules
Preface xvii and water and their delivery to terrestrial planets. It then focuses on general questions about how the genetic code may have appeared and how the first cells were assembled. These chapters marshal general arguments about the possible universality of basic processes that lead to the appearance of life, perhaps on planets around most stars in our Galaxy and others.
The second part - life on Earth - begins with an exploration of microbial life on our planet and how it has adapted to extreme environments. These are analogous to environments that will be explored on Mars and other worlds in the Solar System. The part then moves on to the results of genomics - as exploited by phylogenetic methods. This allows us to explore the interrelationships of organisms to try to create a tree of life. This is central to efforts designed to address what the earliest organisms might have been like, and two chapters are devoted to such issues. This part then moves on to explore ideas on how metazoans originated approximately 560 million years ago.
The topic of the final part of the book - the search for life in the Solar System -constitutes a synthesis of those from the first two parts and lies at the heart of modern 'astrobiology'. Its four chapters review the latest results on the physical environments and the search for life in the Solar System, specifically on Mars, Titan, and Europa.
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