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How did early Earth's inert matter give rise to its teeming life today? That's one of the biggest questions in science – and has long been one of the hardest to answer.

We've known for 60 years that life's most basic building blocks can form spontaneously, given the right conditions. But how did they assemble into complex organisms? Hard evidence to help us answer that question is lacking.

There is plenty of soft evidence, though. Every cell alive today bears traces of "the last universal common ancestor" from which all terrestrial life descends. Thanks to huge advances in analytical tools, notably genome sequencing, we can now reconstruct LUCA in quite astonishing detail.

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