September 3, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Pop Goes the Fatbubble Theory for the Origin of Life

Jack Szostak and colleagues at Howard Hughes Medical Institute have a new entry for stories about how the first life got rolling: the bubble theory.  Bubbles of fat molecules enclosing genetic material might have given rise to a primitive form of natural selection, they say; the more effective at replication the RNA inside a lucky bubble, the more osmotic pressure it would create, causing the bubble to grow.  Bubbles battled for supremacy in this primordial soup till Darwinian selection took over, and that’s where we came from.  The scenario was published in Science1 Sept. 3 and summarized on EurekAlert.
    They actually did test the idea in the lab.  “We tested whether fatty acid vesicles … osmotically stressed by encapsulated contents would increase in membrane area at the expense of unstressed vesicles,” they say.  They had to set boundary conditions so that the bubbles did not rupture (i.e., pop).  In scientific lingo, that translates into: “We therefore determined the maximum sustainable membrane tension of oleate (C18:1) vesicles under osmotic stress.”  They experimented with sugar inside the bubbles, then RNA with nucleotides.  Sure enough, the winning bubbles grew by stealing membrane material from those with lesser contents.  Given any charged genetic polymer inside a fatbubble, they believe bigger would win the competition.  The paper has the customary tables, graphs and incomprehensible jargon, then ends with a summary of their own materialistic, naturalistic origin of life scenario that requires nothing but “simple physical principles” properly applied.  Once upon a time,

We suggest that the phenomenon of osmotically driven, competitive vesicle growth could have played an important role in the emergence of Darwinian evolution during the origin of cellular life (supporting online text).  The present results suggest that simple physical principles may allow a direct connection between genome and membrane.  RNA replicating within vesicles could confer a substantial growth advantage to the membrane by creating internal osmotic pressure.  The faster replication of a superior replicase would therefore lead to faster vesicle growth, at the expense of cells lacking RNA or containing less efficient replicases.  A faster replicase genotype would thus produce the higher-level phenotype of faster cellular growth, a prerequisite of cellular replication (supporting online text).  Darwinian evolution at the organismal level might therefore have emerged earlier than previously thought—at the level of a one-gene cell.   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

EurekAlert, in its summary titled “Battle between bubbles might have started evolution,” says they proposed this scenario as an alternative to the reigning popular “RNA World” theory.  They like it because it is not as complicated.


1Chen, Roberts and Szostak, “The Emergence of Competition Between Model Protocells,” Science, Vol 305, Issue 5689, 1474-1476, 3 September 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1100757].

One of the problems with peer review is that if a few reviewers let nonsense pass, it can get published in a prestigious journal, and snuggle into the corpus of scientific literature, without opportunity for immediate refutation.  Then science reporters, like eager guppies at the base of a waterfall waiting for crud to wash over, swallow it whole and regurgitate for the peasants who respect science but don’t know any better.  This is soooooo stupid, it makes you wonder how Big Science can print such silliness without making the Darwin Party blush.  The answer is: they have to.  Their materialism pushes them to silly storytelling because they have already rejected the alternative, intelligent design.  Choosing beforehand to ignore the obvious, silly storytelling is all they have available, so they dress it up in enough scientific glitter to distract attention from the pitiful plot.  Computer programmers know this game.  A bug is a bug, but if you dress it in a handsome suit, it is transformed into a “feature.”
    One hole is sufficient to make a bubble pop, but this story has more than a wiffle ball.  Wise readers, get out your baloney detectors.

  • Personification: It’s bad enough when evolutionists personify birds and flowers, but now they expect us to believe that bubbles compete in the evolutionary fitness game?  Bubbles couldn’t care if they win or pop.
  • Begging the question: They assume what they need to prove, by having us believe that RNA replicating enzymes (extremely sophisticated molecular machines, called replicases) already existed.  Their experiments seeded the bubbles with man-made functional RNA machinery.  This is like Olympic judges ignoring a sprinter competing on a motorcycle.
  • Word games: The Darwin Party’s favorite euphemism for miracle, “emergence” is all over the place.
  • Prisoner’s Dilemma:  A fatbubble with RNA inside is a prison, not a factory.  Once the RNA inside uses up all its food (nucleotides), it cannot evolve any further.  Cells have elaborate ways to control entry and exit of materials from the external environment, but fatbubbles do not.  As such, they are death traps (see 01/17/2002 commentary). 
  • More Begging the Question:  They consider a more primitive genetic material (PNA), then just assume that the more complex and difficult RNA and DNA molecules will “emerge” by Darwinian evolution, the very thing they need to prove.  They say, “In contrast, a neutral polymer such as PNA (peptide nucleic acid), having no associated counterions, would be a much less effective osmolyte, a difference that may have influenced the natural selection of the genetic material itself.”  Did you catch that?  That’s like saying, “A Piper Cub is difficult to evolve, so maybe the difference between a Piper Cub and a 757 influenced the evolution of the jumbo jet itself.”  Come again?
  • Card Stacking:  To sneak Darwinian natural selection into the plot, they play the replication card but leave out the accuracy card.  Faster or more efficient replication is useless unless it is accurate.  Without accurate copying, any gains will be quickly lost due to the phenomenon of “error catastrophe” – an accumulation of errors that makes the house of cards fall flat.
  • Non-sequitur:  They assume that bigger is better.  A bigger dead bubble is still dead.  It’s not evolving into a living cell.  They think that since fast growth is a prerequisite for life, getting some bubbles to grow faster is a step in the right direction.  It does not follow.
  • Yet more begging the question:  They presume that one gene, a replicase, is all that is necessary.  They expect sensible adults to believe that a machine that can replicate an RNA molecule (how that “emerged,” they conveniently omit) was sufficient to produce translators, transporters, energy conversion systems, and factories of molecular machines working together in harmony.  If that is not a myth, what is?
  • Glittering Generalities:  Do they really expect us to believe that bubbles that grow to a certain size in a laboratory flask can tell us anything about the origin of life?  Only if the audience enjoys bedtime stories like Gullible’s Drivels.
  • Suggestion:  By associating these irrelevant fatbubbles to the Grand Myth of Evolution, they create a mystique about them that lead us to envision marvelous bubbles evolving into fantastic living things.  Disney would love to animate this, right next to the ballerina hippos.

OK, that’s enough.  Time would fail us to discuss the extrapolation fallacy, the post-hoc fallacy, the misuse of circumstantial evidence, the difficulty that lipid membranes fall apart in the presence of salt (see 09/17/2002 headline), etc.  One hole is sufficient.  The only worthwhile observation about this story is that the authors realize that the popular “RNA World” scenario (see 07/11/2002 headline) is too complex to be credible, so they offer this putative transitional plot that is simpler, in hopes of extending the magic wand of natural selection further back into the story, as if that would help.  Did it help?
    It’s high time we stop letting “scientists” dazzle us with bugs in suits and bubbles that come to life.  This is juvenile imagination, not science.  Only intelligent design could make a fatbubble do other than what comes naturally.  For those who like crossword puzzles, what’s a three-letter word for “a phenomenon incurred by exceeding the maximum sustainable membrane tension of vesicles under osmotic stress”?
Accounting for a viable cell
Gets Darwinists in trouble;
Without design the growth to compel,
Pop goes the bubble.

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Categories: Origin of Life

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