May 31, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Fooling Around with OOL

Origin of Life (OOL) research is one of those areas in science where one doesn’t have to make any real progress, as long as he or she looks busy.  Anything the scientist says, no matter how speculative, or even foolish, is likely to be taken seriously, because the alternative – creation – has already been ruled out as “pseudoscience” by the ruling scientific elite.  Here are some recent examples.

  1. Cook up that DNA:  You can get DNA to copy itself without life.  How?  Inside a deep sea vent, says Dieter Braun of the University of Munich.  New Scientist gave his idea publicity, complete with a photograph of a black smoker with the caption, “Providing a perfect setting for life to replicate.”  That idea, of course, runs contrary to the view of other theorists who consider the deep sea to be the last place one would think life would begin (e.g., Jeffrey Bada, 06/14/2002; see also problems with salt in the ocean, 09/17/2002).  Braun provided a semblance of empirical evidence for his view by putting DNA, nucleotides, and the polymerase enzyme that knows how to assemble them into tiny test tubes and heating them with a laser to set up convection currents.  He and his assistant found copies of DNA accumulating in pockets at the top.  Asked how different configurations might form, he speculated that “Fatty acids in the water may have provided a shuttle service,” and even form membranes to keep them together – the beginning of cells.  It’s all so simple, Nick Lane commented: “The work shows that DNA can be both concentrated and replicated under a very simple set of conditions.”  Of course, by providing DNA, DNA polymerase and nucleotides, he gave his experiment a whopping head start.  But wasn’t RNA supposed to come first?  He didn’t say.  DNA lacks enzymatic activity.  Without enzymes, DNA by itself would be a dead end.  That’s why “RNA World” theory at least tried to cover those two functions in one molecule.  The RNA World hypothesis has its own set of problems (07/11/2002, 02/15/2007).
  2. Top Down: Is it ID?  On Live Science, Stuart Fox speculated that Craig Venter’s latest experiment with “synthetic life” (see 05/22/2010) “May Reveal Origins of Natural Life.”  By that he means that further experiments that reduce a cell to its minimal components may show how simple a cell can be to qualify as living.  That, in turn, may reveal possible pathways that primitive cells may have taken in their path from nonlife to life: “Venter addressed this issue on Thursday, noting that he and researchers at his institute had themselves debated how this technology would allow scientists to test the minimum level of biological material needed to spark life,” Fox said.  In Venter’s words, “I think it’ll be interesting as the people working on origins of life, people trying to understand these minimal early possible precursors to life as those programs proceed in one direction, and we proceed from the other, building on top of the evolution of an information system, we might be able to meet somewhere in the middle and have some exciting new tools.”  The only thing clear from the articles that the ones doing the debating, experimenting, researching, working, evaluating, testing, building, meeting and understanding (if that) were human beings – not primitive lifeforms.
  3. Chirality and shattered mirrors:  Marcus Chown published a three-page article in New Scientist on the mystery of homochirality – why all living things have left-handed amino acids in their proteins (see online book).  He gave most prominence to a theory that supernovas or black holes gave a slight quantum excess to one form, and that these were enhanced in the waters of the early earth.  This suggestion, however, turned out to be quite weak by page 3, and Chown could only hope for findings to come forth from spacecraft in the future when all was said and done. 
  4. Phosphorus for us:  There’s phosphorus in DNA.  There’s phosphorus in ATP.  That can only mean one thing: earth needed phosphorus to have life.  It’s not clear how phosphorus got into our atmosphere.  Maybe it came special delivery.  PhysOrg reported that Dr Terry Kee of the University of Leeds thinks it came from meteorites.  “Phosphorus is present within several meteoritic minerals and it is possible that this reacted to form pyrophosphite under the acidic, volcanic conditions of early Earth.”
        Now, once Earth had pyrophosphite, it had an energetic molecule that, while not as useful as ATP, was at least somewhat similar.  “The team found that a compound known as pyrophosphite may have been an important energy source for primitive lifeforms.”  Did he have any evidence for this?  No; it’s just a requirement.  “It’s a chicken and egg question,” he said.  “Scientists are in disagreement over what came first – replication, or metabolism.  But there is a third part to the equation – and that is energy.”  So while scientists are disagreeing about two things, why not add a third?  That’s progress: “You need enzymes to make ATP and you need ATP to make enzymes,” explained Dr Kee, as if adding questions qualifies as explaining something: “The question is: where did energy come from before either of these two things existed?”  We may not know the answers, but at least our ignorance is getting more sophisticated thanks to OOL research.

That last press release did enlighten readers with some little-known facts about ATP in the real world of actual lifeforms.  “At any one time, the human body contains just 250g of ATP – this provides roughly the same amount of energy as a single AA battery.  This ATP store is being constantly used and regenerated in cells via a process known as respiration, which is driven by natural catalysts called enzymes.”  That enzyme, ATP synthase, is a two-part rotary motor with multiple interacting parts that is absolutely essential to all life.  It has been discussed many times in these pages (e.g., 03/27/2008).  If what the article said is true, it’s hard to imagine a world-class sprinter at the Olympics running on an AA battery.  To be sure, your body cycles through the equivalent of your body weight in ATP in an active day of work, so there is a dynamic interplay of food energy going into ATP production and out into work throughout the day, but to have only 250g of ATP in store at a time surely qualifies for one of the most “Amazing Facts” ever encountered in these pages – something worth sharing around the water cooler.

Here’s another case where “Amazing Facts” and “Dumb Ideas” got awarded together.  That statement about ATP is a gem plucked out of garbage.  Think of the efficiency of the energy system your Maker provided the human body, such that those quadrillions of exquisitely crafted ATP synthase motors can extract out of phosphorus, using proton motive force, enough energy to send an athlete hurtling down a track, or pole-vaulting over a bar, or high jumping, power lifting, and all the other amazing feats of speed and strength we enjoy watching in sports, out of just 250 grams of ATP – the equivalent of a single AA battery!  Incredible.  Did that superbly crafted design evolve by chemical evolution?  Not on your life.

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