May 10, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Barbiturates in Darwin's Warm Little Pond

Are barbituates the missing links to the origin of life?

Nick Hud (Georgia Institute of Technology) is a respected scientist in origin of life research, receiving funds from NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his work. His latest paper, published in Nature Communications, claims you can get nucleotides that pair up, like nucleic acids, spontaneously – if you mix the right ingredients. What works, his team found, is a mixture of barbituric acid and melamine (more on those molecules below). These are the “missing links,” the Georgia Tech press release suggests, that could have been “brewed in primordial puddles“. Ben Brumfield’s prose tempts the reader’s imagination with imagery out of medieval alchemy:

The crucibles that bore out early building blocks of life may have been, in many cases, modest puddles.

Now, researchers working with that hypothesis have achieved a significant advancement toward unlocking a longstanding evolutionary mystery — how components of RNA and DNA formed from chemicals present on early Earth before life existed. It could also have implications on how astrobiologists view the probability of life elsewhere in the universe.

In surprisingly simple laboratory reactions in water, under everyday conditions, they have produced what could be good candidates for missing links on the pathway to the code of life.

And when those components joined up, the result even looked like RNA.

As the researchers’ work progresses, it could reveal that much of the original chemistry that led to life arose not in fiery cataclysms and in scarce quantities, but abundantly and gradually on quiet, rain-swept dirt flats or lakeshore rocks lapped by waves.

But did life really start on barbiturates? That’s a depressing thought. Let’s look at the chemical mixture, what they call “a pair of potential chemical ancestors of the nucleobases of RNA.” Barbituric acid (C4H4N2O3) is used to make a variety of barbiturate drugs that act as depressants to the central nervous system. A member of the pyrimidines, it is also one of four ingredients used to make riboflavin, or vitamin B12. The authors purchased their barbituric acid (BA) from a supply house.

Melamine (C3H6N6) is an artificially-synthesized poison used in industry for insecticides, insulation and fire retardants, among other things. The authors purchased their melamine from a supply house, and with their order, they bought some ribose for their experimental soup. It should be noticed right off the bat that none of these chemicals occur naturally in any significant amounts, if at all. Ribose is particularly difficult to account for in plausible prebiotic conditions, since it disintegrates readily in water (11/05/04).

Despite these drawbacks, Hud is tempted to speculate. He envisions a kind of Darwinian fitness race in the primordial puddle:

“Early Earth was a messy laboratory where probably many molecules like those needed for life were produced. Some survived and prospered, while others eventually vanished,” Hud said. “That goes for the ancestors of RNA, too.”

Using two molecules known as barbituric acid and melamine, the researchers formed proto-nucleotides so strongly resembling two of RNA’s nucleotides that it is tempting to speculate that they are indeed their ancestors.

But are molecules red in tooth and claw? There’s no way Hud could ensure that the ingredients he needs would have survived and prospered in the mix of poisons, except by wishing it were true, and looking back from the fact that life exists, and thinking “Aha! It could happen!” Logic, however, rears its ugly head at these motivations. Could is not the same as did (pigs “could” fly; see 1/26/08). “Ancestor” implies a line of descent of information—not possible here. And the existence of a piece of sculpture does not presuppose it emerged out of a primordial soup of molten bronze. And those are not the only logical fallacies. He needs to rescue his speculation from an inconvenient truth of chemistry:

There was one small caveat.

“The reaction does not work as well if barbituric acid and melamine are present in the same solution before reacting with ribose because their strong attraction for each other can cause them to precipitate,” Hud said. So, the scientists completed the reaction involving barbituric acid separately from the one involving melamine….

If melamine and barbituric acid formed their respective nucleotides (C-BMP for barbituric acid and MMP for melamine) in separate puddles on the early Earth, then rain could have easily washed the components together, where they would have rapidly assembled into what could have been a precursor to proto-RNA.

The perhapsimaybecouldness index here climbs 5 notches. (1) Now he needs two warm little ponds. (2) They need to segregate the BA and the melamine. (3) Then, fortuitously, rain washes them together into a third warm little pond, where they rapidly assemble. (4) The product “could” have been a “precursor” to (5) not RNA, but “proto-RNA,” whatever that is.

Yet Hud overconfidently states, “It works even better then we thought. It’s almost too easy.”

Sure it is, when you run your lab by intelligent design.

Hud deceives the public with this paper. He knows full well that this won’t work. For one, he gave no indication that barbituric acid or melamine—two synthetic poisons—would form naturally on earth. Even if they did, would they form in sufficient concentrations to matter? What would make them segregate into separate puddles? What are the downsides of having vast amounts of these poisons on the surface of the earth? What about all the undesirable cross reactions that would most likely swamp any gains in his “precursor to proto-RNA” (whatever that is), precipitating into tarry gunk that goes nowhere? Yet he calls this a “plausible” scenario six times in the paper, including in the title! Does he tell the public that he bought his ingredients from a chemical supply house? No. Here’s a double lie he tells to the press agent:

The two ingredients would have been readily abundant for reactions on a prebiotic Earth, Hud said.  “And they would have been well suited for primitive information coding,” he added.

That is baloney. Nowhere in the paper does he indicate how likely these ingredients are to form naturally; there’s only a reference to two earlier papers, and the abstracts of those show that chemists used intelligent design to synthesize them. Hud also failed to explain how chance would segregate the molecules into single-handed forms: “we have not shown chiral nucleotide selection, ” the paper admits clearly. Without homochirality (all nucleotides single-handed), you’re not going to get “primitive information coding” even if some “base pairing” occurs. Look at this myth in the paper:

In particular, the ability for C-BMP and MMP to form noncovalent supramolecular assemblies could have facilitated the prebiotic localization, organization and subsequent linking of these (or similar) nucleotides into covalent polymers that were then capable of storing and transferring information (for example, by templating the formation of sequence-specific assemblies for the polymerization of additional monomers.

The wishful-thinking nonsense in that statement can hardly be exaggerated. It’s like saying, “dropping Scrabble letters onto the floor at random is capable of storing and transferring information.” It’s not the letters, for crying out loud; it’s the “sequence-specific assemblies” that constitute information—sequences that have meaning, that perform a useful function. Molecules at the mercy of chance and natural law have neither the desire nor the power to template anything, to localize, to organize, or to store information. They’re dead, dead, dead!

Hud also knows full well that ribose is extremely difficult to obtain (that’s why he conveniently ordered his from a supply house). He told reporter Susan Mazur in 2014, “As you know, RNA is not the most stable molecule” (The Origin of Life Circus, p. 92). But he continues to hold up the moribund RNA world scenario, imagining that if you can get precursors to molecules in a chemical soup (all dead), you are making progress. Criticized that he doesn’t have information, he responds, “Absolutely. We don’t have that yet” (p. 88). Mazur asks him if his work contributes to protocell development:

No, we’re really looking at proto-RNA. Proto-nucleic acids. We’re also doing some work on proto-peptides. It’s really proto-biopolymers.

He even talks to Mazur about “pre-proto-RNA” after she reminds him RNA falls apart (p. 87). What on earth is that, and what does it have to do with life? This is as silly as Geppetto thinking his Pinocchio woodwork is a proto-boy. Only in fairy tales does that work. Hud knows these things are not alive or becoming alive. He tells Mazur, “It may come down to, yes, you have something interesting. But is it alive?” (p. 93).

No, his melamine and barbiturates are not alive. Nor are his proto-whatevers. He only imagines Proto to be alive, using the power of suggestion to personify his molecules, conferring on them the attributes of desire and ambition. “I’m trying to find the simplest molecules that would have been able to take the first steps toward what was needed to start life,” he says (p. 88). Look, Dr. Hud: molecules don’t take steps. They’re dead! They don’t know what is needed to start life. If they fall apart in the warm little pond, that’s perfectly fine with them. The fairy tale gets curiouser and curiouser. Pinocchio meets Dorothy:

Proto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore (from The Blunderful Wizard of Flaws, 9/05/08 commentary).

Hud also errs in applying natural selection to his dilute synthetic poison soup. He thinks evolution is equivalent to “change over time” because RNA can do that (p. 87). Mazur reminds him that Carl Woese pictured early cells smashing into each other as a form of exchanging information.

But just because you can accept that life is not limited to vertical gene transfer [i.e., common ancestry], it doesn’t mean that you have to rule out survival of the fittest at the earliest stages. What it comes down to is that we don’t seem to have the selfish gene early on.

Surely Hud knows that without genetic storage, there is no natural selection. There is only error catastrophe as any gains are lost as things smash into each other—whether they be molecules or cells.

Why would Hud engage in this kind of fiction? Because he can’t report back to the money bosses at the NSF and NASA that it’s a failure. He has to present an illusion of progress to keep the $$$ spigot running. So even if he has to intelligently design some reactions, made with synthetic chemicals he bought at a supply house, and ignore massive problems in a mythical scenario, he needs job security over truth.

This sad state of affairs happens because alternatives to naturalism, like design, have been ruled out. If Hud had to face the likes of Gish, Wilder-Smith or Meyer on a debate stage, he would be turned into a laughingstock in the first five minutes. But because Darwin started the trend of limiting all scientific explanation to methodological naturalism, the truth cannot come out. Some of you readers need to get really, really mad at what Charlie did to science. Government now funds storytellers to spin fairy tales, but censors any criticism. Call your Congressman and demand your tax money back!

Footnote: Hud spent 16 years in Catholic schools, Mazur reports. The main thing he learned there is how to conceal his materialism. “He knows how to educate audiences about origin of life without eviscerating belief systems, and losing the crowd.” Sneaky propagandist, he is. Dark times, these.



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