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Emergence of Life

How did life emerge on Earth? How have life and Earth co-evolved through geological time? Is life elsewhere in the universe? Take a look through the 4-billion-year history of life on Earth through the lens of the modern Tree of Life!


Course at a Glance

About the Course

This course will evaluate the entire history of life on Earth within the context of our cutting-edge understanding of the Tree of Life. This includes the pioneering work of Professor Carl Woese on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus which revolutionized our understanding with a new "Tree of Life." Other themes include:

  • Reconnaissance of ancient primordial life before the first cell evolved
  • The entire ~4-billion-year development of single- and multi-celled life through the lens of the Tree of Life
  • The influence of Earth system processes (meteor impacts, volcanoes, ice sheets) on shaping and structuring the Tree of Life

This synthesis emphasizes the universality of the emergence of life as a prelude for the search for extraterrestrial life.

Course Syllabus

This course will be broken up into 8 weekly modules covering the following topics:

Week 1: Course Welcome, Geological Time, and the Nature of Science

Week 2: The Tree of Life and Early Earth Environments

Week 3: Fossilization and Precambrian Life-Earth Interaction

Week 4: Paleozoic Life After the Advent of Skeletons

Week 5: Paleozoic Plants, Reptiles, and the Transition to Land

Week 6: Mesozoic Reign of Dinosaurs and the Development of Flight

Week 7: Cenozoic Mammals and Global Environmental Change

Week 8: Astrobiology and the Search for Life in the Cosmos

Recommended Background

No specific background is required. You do need an open mind and an eagerness to apply critical free thought and approaches of scientific inquiry. This will enable you to explore how life on Earth came to be in its current form and whether there is life elsewhere in the cosmos.

Suggested Readings

No textbooks are required. A few articles will be recommended to read, but not required.

Course Format

In addition to watching the 8–12 video lectures per week, you can pass the course by participating in any of the following weekly activities:

  • 2 quizzes per week
  • Discussion activities
  • Scientific paper activities


What resources will I need for this class?

For this course, all you need is an Internet connection.

See what others have to say about this course!

"The course has broadened my comprehension of life, evolution and our relation with the environment. . . . Everything made more sense to me. Thanks for this beautiful experience!" -B
"If the role of education is to cultivate dialogue, reflection, curiosity and wonder I feel that this course has MORE than accomplished this for me." -T.R.
"The credit goes to both of you for making this course on such an esoteric subject so lucid, clear and even humorous that I simply had to fall in love with it." -B.B.

Illinois is a world leader in research, teaching, and public engagement, distinguished by the breadth of our programs, broad academic excellence, and internationally renowned faculty.

Join the Illinois community for Emergence of Life:

Image sources: The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois and NASA