February 13, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Life Didn’t Start on Hot Clay

Strike off one more proposal for the origin of life.  “Darwin’s warm pond theory tested,” announced the BBC News, but it was found wanting.
    Origin of life researchers have long recognized the serious problem of concentrating organic molecules in a primordial soup such that they could interact and grow.  A popular ingredient in the mix in recent years has been clay.  Some suggested that organic molecules could adhere to the surfaces of clay minerals and thereby get close enough to join hands.  Rather than occurring in the open ocean, they suggested this process might occur in hot springs or at deep sea vents.
    David Deamer (UC Santa Cruz) has revealed a difficulty with this proposal;  “in our experiments,” he said, “the organic compounds became so strongly held to the clay particles that they could not undergo any further chemical reactions.”   That appears to bring the clay scenario to a dead end.  “The results are surprising and in some ways disappointing.  It seems that hot acidic waters containing clay do not provide the right conditions for chemicals to assemble themselves into ‘pioneer organisms.’”  Deamer is not ruling out the “warm little pond” scenario completely, but his findings dash cold water on hot springs or hydrothermal vents.
    The results, not yet published, were presented at an international meeting at the Royal Society to discuss the latest ideas on the origin of life.  About 200 were in attendance.  Organizer Ian Smith (U of Cambridge) explained the reason for the conference: “Understanding how life emerged on Earth within 1,000 million years of its formation is both a fascinating scientific problem and an essential step in predicting the presence of life elsewhere in the Universe.”  Nevertheless, the BBC stated, “While our understanding of the world is rapidly increasing, the answer to how life began on Earth remains elusive.”

Robert Hazen (George Mason U) made a big deal of clay in his recent lecture series for The Teaching Company on the origins of life.  He described clays as almost magical surfaces for concentrating organic molecules so that they could polymerize and grow into more suitable building blocks for life.  The options are diminishing.  Shall we pull that part of the lecture out in the second edition?  How about including some discussion of intelligent design, a cause sufficient to explain the observations?
    Maybe OOL (origin-of-life) people like warm little pond stories because they sound like a spa.  OK, the doctor’s prescription: take two ID pills after a hot bath.  The patient returns.  “Have you taken the ID pills that I prescribed?” the doctor asks.  “Not yet,” the OOL fool replies; “I’m still trying to swallow the rest of the hot bath.”
    It’s a free country; just don’t expect the rest of us to swallow it, either.  ID pills work wonders.  They have all the left-handed amino acids, ribose, calcium, iron and every other essential nutrient, all in the right proportions.  What’s more, they are chewable and easy to digest.  Try one with that next Charlie-horse stomach ache you get at school from vitamin D (design) deficiency.  (Geophagy can be dangerous and is not recommended).

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