August 30, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Origin-of-Life Researchers Excited Over Nothing

The phrase “building blocks of life” is pregnant with misinformation.

Starry eyed:  Many organic molecules have been found in space by their spectra.  New ones are added to the collection from time to time.  The latest is glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar, found by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile around a young star.  No planets were found, because according to theory, they come later in the star’s evolution.  A press release from the University of Copenhagen, “Sweet building blocks of life found around young star,” sent reporters into lockstep confirmation mode.  Science Daily reposted the press release verbatim even though it was primarily promoting the university’s homeboy, Jes Jørgensen, and didn’t explain whether the simple carbohydrate, containing only common carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, would survive any planet’s fiery formation without turning into tar.  PhysOrg dropped the “sweet” word, but reprinted the press release uncritically.   Live Science called this a “space sugar” and stated the phrase “building blocks of life” twice.  At National Geographic, Ker Than was ecstatic about the “sweet discovery,” asking in big, bold print, “Sugar Found In Space: A Sign of Life?”  The presence of this molecule floating in gas was enough to suggest “the possibility of life on other planets.”  Later in the article he did admit, “Glycoaldehyde can be found on Earth, usually in the form of an odorless white powder” that is really not used to sweeten foods.  It’s significance derives from some scientists who “think it plays a key role in the chemical reaction that forms ribonucleic acid (RNA), a crucial biomolecule present in all living cells.”

Phosphorus for usNASA Astrobiology Magazine turned its excitement to phosphorus, a molecule not common on earth but essential to life.  In “Life’s First Taste of Phosphorus,” (an odd title considering the highly-toxic element became essential in compounds long before taste buds evolved in the evolutionary scenario), reporter Michael Scherber provided this summary:  “Phosphorus is vital to life on Earth, even though our planet doesn’t provide life very much phosphorus to work with. Scientists are now studying how phosphorus biochemistry may have originated at the dawn of life.”  Phosphorus ranks 17th in abundance on earth, and is generally locked up in inaccessible minerals, the article explained; available forms tend to be deep in earth’s core.  But phosphorus is a vital part of DNA, RNA, and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and “shows up in a surprisingly wide range of biological molecules.”  So where did life get it?  The article’s best answer: meteorites.  Georgia Tech’s Nicholas Hud became chief storyteller for the scenario of what happened after meteorites provided a veneer of the essential element:

Hud thinks phosphorus might have started out as a trace element in a few biological processes, and only later did life realize all the potential that phosphorus has for life.

Once life developed the molecular machinery that allowed incorporation of phosphorus, and even the ‘harvesting’ of phosphorus, life would have moved to a higher level,” Hud says. “The inclusion of phosphate likely represented a major evolutionary advance in life (if it was not there at the very beginning) and therefore is extremely important for understanding the origin and early evolution of life.

Adventure gameNew Scientist posted a highly speculative article entitled, “DNA could have existed long before life itself.”  The only hint of empirical substance revolved around work by Michael Powner (University College London), who is “trying to make DNA nucleotides through similar methods to those he used to make RNA nucleotides in 2009.  And he’s getting closer.”  Already, though, the speculation is in high gear: “a rethink might be in order,” writer Michael Marshall teased, even though “There is plenty still to do.”  If he succeeds, it “could have important implications for our understanding of life’s origins.”  The old RNA World scenario might be replaced by the DNA World or some “bloody mess” of “rich pickings,” according to Matthew Levy (Albert Einstein College of Medicine), who did not explain how life avoided the toxic cross-reactions and tholins likely to form.  Steven Benner (origin-of-life researcher at University of Florida) would really like to get DNA going early: “Benner says it makes more sense for the first life to have used pure DNA and RNA as early as possible,” Marshall wrote without explaining how pre-microbes evolved sense, because “Both work better than the mongrel molecules.”    “Right now, though, there’s nothing to tell us exactly how and when life first used DNA,” Marshall ended, confessing complete ignorance.  Matthew Levy got the last word: “It almost becomes a choose-your-own-adventure game,” he said.

The pep tide rises:  PNAS published a paper apparently solving an old conundrum for origin-of-life research: how did amino acids link up in peptide bonds?  “Protein synthesis in aqueous environments, facilitated by sequential amino acid condensation forming peptides, is a ubiquitous process in modern biology, and a fundamental reaction necessary in prebiotic chemistry,” Griffith and Vaida explained in the abstract.  “Such reactions, however, are condensation reactions, requiring the elimination of a water molecule for every peptide bond formed, and are thus unfavorable in aqueous environments both from a thermodynamic and kinetic point of view.”  Excitedly, they announced, “We report unambiguous spectroscopic evidence of peptide bond formation at the air–water interface, yielding a possible mechanism providing insight into the formation of modern ribosomal peptide bonds, and a means for the emergence of peptides on early Earth.”  Great.  Now if they can keep them from dissolving again when they dip below the surface, they might be onto something.  Actually, their experiment required the formation of amino acid esters first, and the cooperation of copper ions.

Origin-of-life (OOL) researchers routinely commit a number of fallacies.  First, they are not following evidence where it leads.  Their evolutionary worldview comes first; data are mere props for the worldview.  Second, they commit non-sequiturs.  Just because life requires these molecules now, it does not follow that the appearance of these isolated molecules led to life.  Third, they omit the key ingredient of life: the code.  Scattered amino acids and nucleotides under the best conditions have no connection to the configuration that produces function.  OOL needs an encyclopedia, but generates random alphabet letters scattered over a vast ocean.  Give the materialists whole planets filled with letters combining at fantastic rates without intelligent design; there is zero hope they will ever produce meaning (see online book).

OOL research does not deserve anyone’s respect.  It deserves their pity, or their laughter.  They are wasting time playing adventure games instead of doing real scientific work that helps humanity.  The misinformation disseminated by the media over this hopeless, misleading research deserves their scorn.


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  • socko says:

    For what it’s worth, one profound objection I’ve always applied to any materialistic OOL senario is simply this: in what sense can it be said that all these non-living supposed evolutionary processes actually occured over incredibly vast time scales, with no consiousness to observe them? In other words, does anything actually ‘happen’ without an obeserver? I realise this is a tree-falling-in-the-forest philosophical question, but it’s something to think about…

  • ded2daworld says:

    I’m amazed that all these scientists with all their brainpower and lab equipment and research and testing and trials cannot produce ON PURPOSE what they claim happened entirely by accident. Gimme a break

  • Buho says:

    ded2daworld, their mission began centuries years ago when we thought cells were simple blobs of protoplasm. Herman Boerhaave discovered there is no difference between organics and chemistry with the discovery of how to synthesize urea. The OOL thinking went after Darwin, there must be a simple formula to produce these blobs of protoplasm. This makes a lot of sense.

    But every year since then the complexity of life has grown. Maybe it’s the frog-in-boiling-water scenario, the OOL researchers haven’t pulled their noses out of the beakers and stepped back to see what history is clearly showing, and what half of America is laughing about.

    Like a carrot affixed to a donkey, dangling in front, the donkey thinking “just one step away!”

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