Origin of Life: How Dry I Am?
Stephen Benner (U of Florida) has stopped looking for life in water. A researcher into the evolutionary origin of life, he understands that “water is a terrible solvent for life” – not life as we know it today, he means, but life at the beginning. This sounds strange, considering most astrobiologists believe in a “follow the water” approach to finding life in space. In Nature,1 he explained:
Benner points out that water is generally not a good solvent for doing organic chemistry – which is, in the end, what life is all about. For one thing, water is rather reactive, tending to split apart the bonds that link the building blocks of biomolecules together. It readily breaks peptide bonds, for example, as well as many of the bonds in nucleic acids, such as RNA. “The structure of RNA screams ‘I did not arise in water!’” Benner asserts. He says that in about four out of five cases, synthetic organic chemists will avoid using water as a solvent. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)
Benner shared his ideas at a conference in Italy earlier this year. Philip Ball investigated his ideas in the article, but puzzled over what Benner said and what we know about how life utilizes water:
But of course organic chemists aren’t usually trying to create life. Water has many properties that seem indispensable for the functioning of proteins and cells. It is an excellent solvent for ions, for example – crucial for nerve signalling, enzymatic processes, biomineralization and the behaviour of DNA. It is also a master of weak intermolecular interactions such as hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic forces. The latter play a central role in protein folding and protein-protein interactions, whereas the former often act as bridges between protein binding sites and their substrates. And water’s ability to absorb and lose heat without undergoing a large temperature change provides thermal cushioning, shielding cells and organisms from wild temperature swings.
No other known liquid combines all of these properties.
Because water is an enemy at the origin of life but an indispensable friend for sustaining it, chemical evolutionists have a conundrum on their hands. As an escape, they are asking “what if” questions about whether life could have arisen in other solvents.
Asking such ‘what if’ questions might seem strange to biologists and chemists, but it is far more common in cosmology or physics [see 08/16/2005]. For cosmologists, the physical Universe seems to be precariously fine-tuned to make life possible. For example, the fine-structure constant, which determines the strength of electromagnetic interactions, is not fixed by any known fundamental theory; and yet if it was ten times larger, stable atoms could not exist….
He [John Finney, University College, London] adds that “the fine-tuning argument with respect to water is a far more complex problem than that in astrophysics. Without knowing what aspects of water are important, I suspect we are doing little more than speculating.”
Others at the conference thought Benner was putting the cart before the horse: “life on Earth is adapted to water rather than the other way round,” they agreed. Benner, meanwhile, beset by the problems with RNA and proteins in water, is going to investigate uncharted territory: dry, frozen worlds with liquid methane, perhaps, like Titan (08/09/2005, 01/21/2005), or ones of his own making:
Benner is participating in a US National Academies panel funded by NASA that is looking at possible alternative chemistries for life, and which he hopes will identify research directions that funding agencies can pursue. He believes that researchers should aim high – to create life forms that do not reproduce the chemistry that is found on Earth. In other words, if we can’t easily get to other worlds, we should build them here.
1Philip Ball, “Water and Life: Seeking the Solution,” Nature, 436, 1084-1085 (25 August 2005) | doi: 10.1038/4361084a.
Steven Benner should know better. He knows more than most evolutionists how many and intractable are the problems with chemical evolution; the problems are so bad, in fact, that he joked that they are almost enough to make one consider becoming a creationist (see 11/05/2004 entry). Now that is really bad to a Darwinist! Nothing could be worse.
Articles like this are useful to show that creationists and intelligent design advocates are not making things up when they talk about the fine-tuning of the laws of physics and the impossibility of getting life by chance. Here you have it in the evolutionists’ own words. There is nothing to show for a century of speculation – only futureware.
Cynics will undoubtedly follow not the water, but the money. Chemical evolution has no real use for water, methane, or any other solvent, really; the thing that lubricates it is funding. It’s what gave the charlatan Sidney Fox his fifteen years of fame (01/07/2005), and is keeping Astrobiology the slickest new drainpipe for NASA dollars. Without funding, the Darwinian storytelling enterprise (12/22/2003) would dry up, and the bums would have to work in the real world. Meanwhile, it’s your tax dollars at work.