September 15, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

How Much Can the Origin of Life Be Simplified?

“No problem,” a report from Spain’s Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona seems to say: “Life’s origins were easier than was thought.”  (See also EurekAlert.)  The problem they claim to have solved is described in their press release:

In the primordial soup that produced life on earth, there were organic molecules that combined to produce the first nucleic acid chains, which were the first elements able to self-replicate.  According to one of the more accepted theories, these molecules were ribonucleic acid (RNA) chains, a molecule that is practically identical to DNA and that today has the secondary role in cells of copying information stored in DNA and translating it into proteins.  These proteins have a direct active role in the chemical reactions of the cell.  In the early stages of life, it seems that the first RNA chains would have had the dual role of self-replicating (as is today the case with DNA) and participating actively in the chemical reactions of the cell activity.  Because of their dual role, these cells are called ribozymes (a contraction of the words ribosome and enzyme).  But there is an important obstacle to the theory of ribozymes as the origin of life: they could not be very large in length as they would not be able to correct the replication errors (mutations).  Therefore they were unable to contain enough genes even to develop the most simple organisms.   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

What they refer to is the phenomenon of “error catastrophe.”  If the error rate in replication is too high, any gains in complexity or function are quickly lost in just a few generations.  This brings natural selection, which depends on future generations carrying any beneficial variations, to a halt.  How did the UAB researchers get around this obstacle?

An investigation led by Mauro Santos, from the Department of Genetics and Microbiology at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, alongside two Hungarian scientists, has shown that the error threshold, that is, the maximum number of errors that may occur during the replication process of ribozymes without this affecting its functioning, is higher than was previously calculated.  In practice, this means that the first riboorganisms (protocells in which RNA is responsible for genetic information and metabolic reactions) could have a much bigger genome than was previously thought: they could contain more than 100 different genes, each measuring 70 bases in length (bases are the units that constitute the genes and codify the information), or more than 70 genes, each measuring 100 bases.  It is worth remembering that tRNAs (essential molecules for the synthesis of proteins) are approximately 70 bases long.
    The discovery, published in Nature Genetics, has greatly relaxed the conditions necessary for the first living organisms to develop.  “This quantity of genes would be enough for a simple organism to have enough functional activity”, according to the researchers.

The press release puts 200 genes as the minimum for a bacterium, but claims that a prebiotic RNA replicating organism could have gotten by with “much fewer genes” because it would not have needed the current DNA-to-RNA translation machinery.

In recent origin-of-life literature, three hopeful-sounding claims have been made.  First, atmospheric scientists revised upward the amount of reducing hydrogen and methane – gases essential for natural formation of amino acids – that could have existed on the early earth (06/16/2005).  Second, a natural mechanism for producing a slight excess of same-handed chiral molecules – about 2.5% – was described.  Third, this announcement has relaxed the threshold for error, long thought to be too stringent to expect a minimal genome to survive the error catastrophe.  Taken together, just how positive are these developments for encouraging belief that life could have arisen by chance in a primordial soup?
    It’s time to review the helicopter-in-the-canyon analogy from our 05/22/2002 commentary.  Evolutionists think they are making progress if they can add little bits and pieces to their tall tale that make it sound more plausible.  But the outcome of the story has already been determined in their minds: life did evolve by chance, somehow, somewhere.  Since they will not even entertain any other possibility (i.e., that life was designed by a Creator), then some kind of scenario like this RNA World ribozyme story must have taken place – no matter how many the problems, no matter how wide the canyon between non-life and life (02/06/2005).  Since Pope Charlie ruled the plausibility criterion legal in science (12/22/2003 commentary), no more rigorous proofs were required to consider a claim scientific.  The legalization of storytelling opened up the current welfare state for storytellers.
    Each of these three hopeful suggestions has monstrous problems:

  1. A reducing atmosphere would have been necessary but not sufficient to produce some – but not all – of the so-called “building blocks of life.”  RNA itself, you recall from 08/23/2005, is horrendously difficult to produce, especially in a watery primordial soup.  Beyond that, the concentrations of the ingredients would have been negligibly dilute, and even if that obstacle were overcome, toxins and competing chemicals would quickly overpower the desirable ones.  Furthermore, the lack of an ozone shield would subject the ingredients to destructive radiation that would quickly annihilate them (amino acids, you recall, have a half-life of 8 hours on the Martian surface with even less radiation dosage—see 05/18/2005 and 01/28/2005). 
  2. Chiral molecules must be 100% one-handed to produce useful biomolecules.  Close enough is not good enough, and a 2.5% excess is not even close.
  3. The amount of genetic information necessary to produce a self-replicating entity that could (theoretically) evolve by natural selection is still a sky-high hurdle.  These Spaniards agree that 200 genes was too high, but presume that 70 of length 100 is approachable.  When even one is astronomically improbable – so much so that a success could never be expected in this or multiple universes (see online book), that’s like hoping that we can leap over Alpha Centauri with a pogo stick (but no map) just because we no longer have to leap over Sirius.

These are just three of many problems.  Taken together, they amplify each other’s implausibility to the extent that continuing the discussion is futile.  That’s being gracious about it.
    In totalitarian regimes like those of Hitler and Stalin, it was a standard propaganda technique for the newspapers to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.  Since the state controlled the media, no dissent was ever heard.  The citizens might be starving, cold, poor, miserable and destitute, but their ignorance was the media’s bliss.  Day after day, the people would hear messages of progress, hope, joy, and success on the radio and in the papers.  Photographs of smiling faces and public works assured the populace that the latest 5-Year Plan was on schedule, and things were looking up.  Atrocities committed by the regime, of course, were shielded from view.  In addition, the propaganda machine had free reign to tell big lies about the opposition.  Party leaders painted the enemy as evil monsters, and described awful conditions in enemy lands, giving the impression that, however bad things appeared, the citizens were living in utopia compared to the rest of the world.*  Since no one could ever get a dissenting letter to the editor printed (and if they tried, they were usually never heard from again), the peasants often just accepted what was told them – unless they had a radio that could hear unjammed broadcasts from free lands, or happened upon an air-drop package from the outside world.  Do you see some parallels with the Darwin Party elitist establishment?  Thank God for the World Wide Web.

(Visited 10 times, 1 visits today)
Categories: Origin of Life

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.