Big Science Lies About Chirality in Space
What was discovered has nothing to do with life, nor does it contribute in any way to solving one of the “greatest mysteries of chemistry.”
From the news hype, you would think astrobiologists have made a giant leap toward understanding the origin of life. An announcement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, publisher of Science Magazine) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) sent reporters into a frenzy, writing rapturous headlines that reverberated throughout the internet:
- ‘Twisty’ Molecule Essential to Life Spotted in Deep Space For 1st Time (Space.com). “Discovering such molecules in deep space, called chiral molecules, can help researchers understand the development of life on Earth, which is rich in those complex molecules….”
- First mirror-image molecule found in interstellar space (New Scientist); “the result could help scientists understand where life can arise, but it could also tell them about how it happened.”
- Prebiotic Molecule Detected in Interstellar Cloud (CalTech); “does interstellar prebiotic chemistry plant the primordial cosmic seeds that determine the handedness of life?”
- A Molecule Deep in Space Could Help Explain the Origins of Life (Discover Magazine). “A peculiar new molecule hovering within a star-forming dust cloud in deep in space could help explain why life on Earth is the way it is.“
- Life’s first handshake: Chiral molecule detected in interstellar space (Science Daily). “Chiral molecules are essential for life and their discovery in deep space may help scientists understand why life on Earth relies on a certain handedness to perform key biological functions.”
- Mystery ‘key of life’ molecule that may explain our origins is found outside the solar system (Daily Mail UK); “….a pioneering leap forward in our understanding of how prebiotic molecules are made in the universe and the effects they may have on the origins of life.“
Now, the data: astrochemists at the NRAO found spectral signatures of propylene oxide in interstellar gas clouds 390 light-years away (i.e., a long way from the earth). Propylene oxide (CH3CHCH2O) is manufactured by industry in the production of plastics. It also has been used as a fumigant, racing fuel and as a disinfectant for biological samples in preparation for microscopy. It is a probable human carcinogen (Wikipedia). No living thing on earth makes it or uses it.
Why, then, are all the news sources pretending this molecule has anything to do with the origin of life? Many molecules are found in space, organic (carbon-bearing) and inorganic. Some are found in living things, but others, like HCN (hydrogen cyanide) or acrylonitrile (CH2CHCN), are deadly poisons. Many interstellar molecules are more complex than propylene oxide (see list).
The only thing about this molecule that is new is that it is chiral: that is, it comes in left-handed and right-handed forms. This is not surprising, because chirality depends only on the geometry of the chemical bonds that connect the atoms. Many chiral molecules are known on earth that have nothing to do with life. This is the first one found in interstellar gas and dust. Whenever chirality is found outside of living cells, it consists of “racemic” mixtures of approximately 50% left-handed and 50% right-handed.
Every biologist knows that life depends on homochirality: building blocks arranged with only one hand. With only rare exceptions, proteins are made up of 100% left-handed amino acids, and DNA/RNA chains use 100% right-handed sugars. Scientists know this is “one of the deepest mysteries in chemistry,” as an embedded video clip on Space.com states.
So does the discovery of abiotic propylene oxide help, in any way, solve the mystery? Absolutely not. Deeper reading in the articles, below the flashy headlines and references to life, reveals that the mystery is no closer to a solution.
“Scientists do not yet understand how biology came to rely on one handedness and not the other.” (Science Daily)
“…. molecules with the wrong ‘handedness’ won’t work at all in many biological systems. Because of that, most of the important chiral molecules on Earth, like amino acids, are all the same “handedness” as each other. But scientists don’t know how the Earth came to favor particular varieties to start with. (Space.com)
“While homochirality—the use of only one handedness of any given molecule—is evolutionarily advantageous, it is unknown how life chose the molecular handedness seen across the biosphere.” (Caltech)
Only empty speculations fill the gap. Although the astronomers cannot detect the handedness of the molecules in the gas cloud, they assume that the molecules are racemic, because no known formation process can discriminate between the two forms (called enantiomers or isoforms). In the New Scientist article, co-discoverer Brandon Carroll (Caltech) admits complete ignorance on the subject, even invoking chance:
Carroll suspects that nature first produced an equal number of right- and left-handed molecules. Both are easily synthesised in the lab. Then some process, perhaps incoming star light, preferentially destroyed one handedness, leaving only the other to form life.
“We just don’t know what process is doing this,” says Carroll. “It could be completely random. Or it could be that they’re all the same.” But by observing how these molecules naturally form deep within clouds of interstellar gas, researchers might soon have their answer.
No physical process has ever been shown to produce more than a slight enantiomeric excess of one hand over the other, as CEH has pointed out for years (most recently, 6/02/16). Indeed, it is very hard for intelligent humans to separate them. Living cells, however, manufacture and select one-handed molecules reliably all the time. Insertion of the wrong hand in a protein or DNA molecule is often destructive, breaking the function of the molecule. In cells, proofreading processes correct the errors or destroy the chains.
If some natural process in a gas cloud separated the hands and sent them into a planetary nebula where the solar system formed (as the astrochemists propose), it should be possible to test the idea. Find any homochiral molecule on Mercury, Mars, Venus, or any other planet devoid of life. Such evidence would make monumental news, but of course, it doesn’t exist.
To expect random chance to build a homochiral molecule is improbable to the extreme, as our online book shows (for an average-length protein, one chance in 10123). Even if—against astronomical odds—a homochiral polypeptide or polynucleotide did form, it would represent one lonely, non-living molecule likely to break apart with the next lightning bolt on a sterile earth.
The scientists know all this, but they titillated reporters with suggestive quotes about “life,” and off they ran. This is tantamount to deliberate deception. Is it funding time at the NRAO? The paper comes out this week in Science, but was announced at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in San Diego.
Even worse is an earlier headline posted by Science Daily and PhysOrg, stating “Life’s origins may result from low-energy electron reactions in space: Adds crucial data to study of the ‘chemistry of the heavens’.” Some chemist at Wellesly College claims that some “building blocks of life” may form with less energy than earlier thought.
His recently published results suggest that low-energy, electron-induced condensed phase reactions may contribute to the interstellar synthesis of prebiotic molecules previously thought to form exclusively via UV photons. In the simplest possible terms, his work is consistent with the idea that we really do come from stardust and is relevant to the first unambiguous detection of glycine in a comet, reported in May 2016.
Glycine, the simplest amino acid, is the only non-chiral amino acid in life. Its existence in a comet has nothing to do with “life’s origins” or the solution to the homochirality problem.
Update 6/15/16: Rowena Ball at The Conversation admits the problem, but offers a speculative solution that cannot get pure homochirality. It also fails the test of finding chiral molecules on the other planets.
Update 6/19/16: The original paper in Science about propylene oxide, like the popular press articles, offers no solution to the problem of homochirality. The authors toss out the possibility that circularly polarized light may produce an enantiomeric excess (4/22/13), but they provide no evidence that it did (they cannot even detect the ratio of handedness in the molecular cloud). Even if it did, the excess would likely be slight, and would be subject to the test offered above: look for an enantiomeric excesses on other rocky planets that supposedly evolved from the same dust disk as Earth.
The press and the materialists in Big Science are hoodwinking the public. Here we have one of the strongest falsifications of origin-of-life hypotheses (homochirality), and King Charlie’s magicians turn it into a celebration of naturalism. The Caltech press release says “The work is supported by the National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics and Graduate Fellowship grant programs and the NASA Astrobiology Institute….” Your tax dollars at work. Are you angry enough yet?
Why is there no media outlet, beside CEH, that calls foul? Why doesn’t any secular reporter ask hard questions? Big Science and their lackeys in the media are part of a huge racket. They deserve to be exposed and shamed.
Teachers: Use the news reports cited above as examples of propaganda in action. Aim our Baloney Detector at the quotes and identify the multiple ways reporters and scientists twist, distort, mislead and fool the public into thinking materialists are making progress showing how life arose without design.
Exercise: Identify the types of propaganda in the news reports. Formulate hard questions you would ask scientists and reporters about the evidence and the implications.
Resources: Evolution: Possible or Impossible? (online here), and The Design of Life by Dembski and Wells. Chapter 8 on “origin of life” provides a very good history and discussion of the many astronomical hurdles militating against life’s origin by non-intelligent causes.