Life: past, present and future

Kenneth H. Nealson, Pamela G. Conrad

Abstract

Molecular methods of taxonomy and phylogeny have changed the way in which life on earth is viewed; they have allowed us to transition from a eukaryote–centric (five–kingdoms) view of the planet to one that is peculiarly prokarote–centric, containing three kingdoms, two of which are prokaryotic unicells. These prokaryotes are distinguished from their eukaryotic counterparts by their toughness, tenacity and metabolic diversity. Realization of these features has, in many ways, changed the way we feel about life on earth, about the nature of life past and about the possibility of finding life elsewhere. In essence, the limits of life on this planet have expanded to such a degree that our thoughts of both past and future life have been altered. The abilities of prokaryotes to withstand many extreme conditions has led to the term extremophiles, used to describe the organisms that thrive under conditions thought just a few years ago, to be inconsistent with life. Perhaps the most extensive adaptation to extreme conditions, however, is represented by the ability of many bacteria to survive nutrient conditions not compatible with eukaryotic life. Prokaryotes have evolved to use nearly every redox couple that is in abundance on earth, filling the metabolic niches left behind by the oxygen–using, carbon–eating eukaryotes. This metabolic plasticity leads to a common feature in physically stratified environments of layered microbial communities, chemical indicators of the metabolic diversity of the prokaryotes. Such ‘metabolic extremophily’ forms a backdrop by which we can view the energy flow of life on this planet, think about what the evolutionary past of the planet might have been, and plan ways to look for life elsewhere, using the knowledge of energy flow on earth.

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