October 19, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Sappy OOL Hypothesis Turns Sour

A spoonful of sugar helps an unrealistic origins story go down, but it doesn’t make it nutritious.

In the beginning, there was sugar (Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich). Whether the author of this press release was intentionally mocking Genesis or just trying to be clever, it shows that tiny remnants of Biblical memory remain in the modern materialistic culture: the author remembers those famous first lines, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The writer also was posing a contrast between creation and materialism – a presumably more “scientific” position that requires only natural forces and atoms to get life going. Let us give the authors their allotted time to defend their “sweet” story.

Organic molecules formed the basis for the evolution of life. But how could inorganic precursors have given rise to them? LMU chemist Oliver Trapp now reports a reaction pathway in which minerals catalyze the formation of sugars in the absence of water.

Right away one notices that water is a problem. Ribose, the main sugar in life, falls apart quickly in water. After skipping some paragraphs that repeat the Miller myth that sparks made the “building blocks of life” easy to get, the article gets to the sugar problem.

However, the hypothesis that sugars could have been produced via the formose reaction runs into two difficulties. The ‘classical’ formose reaction produces a diverse mixture of compounds, and it takes place only in aqueous media. These requirements are at odds with the fact that sugars have been detected in meteorites.

Could the complex molecules required for life emerge spontaneously by chance? Credit: Illustra Media, Origin.

The formose reaction (see details in footnote*) reduces formaldehyde to get additional compounds, including sugars. To see if this could happen in a dry environment, they tumbled some powdered solids in a ball mill, and sprinkled formaldehyde on the mixture. Some sugars did form. Presumably this showed that sugars like ribose “could” form on meteorites, which then “could” support the formation of RNA (ribonucleic acid) for the hypothetical RNA world, then it “could” mix with the other building blocks coming together in the warm little pond. The article uses “could” five times (see perhapsimaybecouldness index). They did not say whether any of the building blocks “could” be homochiral (single-handed) as required. Stephen Meyer (Evolution News) explained on 10/20/2016 why scenarios like this are highly unrealistic:

The authors [of a prior study] acknowledge that the nucleobases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, uracil, and thymine) essential to RNA and DNA could not have been easily produced on the early Earth. Therefore, they speculate that these organic molecules must have originated in outer space and then were transported to Earth via dust particles and meteorites. They explain that, “as to the sources of nucleobases, early Earth’s atmosphere was likely dominated by CO2, N2, SO2, and H2O. In such a weakly reducing atmosphere, Miller–Urey-type reactions are not very efficient at producing organics. One solution is that the nucleobases were delivered by interplanetary dust particles (IDPs) and meteorites.” They further speculate that small amounts of nucleobases (.25 to 515 parts per billion) from these meteorites would have dissolved into the warm little ponds. At the same time, ribose purportedly formed through the formose reaction and quickly combined with the nucleobases and phosphorous to form nucleotides. They then envision nucleotides combining into RNA chains through cycles of the ponds evaporating and then refilling with water. Their rationale: building blocks can only be produced in water, but the nucleotides can only form into long chains through cycles of dehydration. They acknowledge that the entire process had to take place within a few years — a geological instant — otherwise everything would have been eliminated by such forces as UV radiation, hydrolysis, and seepage.

This goes to show that everyone believes in miracles. Some believe in miracles of chance; others believe in miracles that were intelligently designed. The former is a restatement of the Stuff Happens Law. Any sugar would quickly go sour in the billions of years of waiting (see animation, “The Amoeba’s Journey,” in Origin. The latter invokes a cause—intelligence—known to be necessary and sufficient for producing complex specified information.

*Footnote on the formose reaction from the LMU press release:

“The story of synthetic routes from smaller precursors to sugars goes back almost a century prior to the Miller-Urey experiment. In 1861, the Russian chemist Alexander Butlerov showed that formaldehyde could give rise to various sugars via what became known as the formose reaction. Miller und Urey in fact found formic acid in their experiments, and it can be readily reduced to yield formaldehyde. Butlerov also discovered that the formose reaction is promoted by a number of metal oxides and hydroxides, including those of calcium, barium, thallium and lead. Notably calcium is abundantly available on and below the Earth’s surface.”

Materialists working in OOL are the new vitalists. They envision these molecules wanting to join up into a cell. They attribute wish fulfillment inside dumb atoms, justifying the story by the exclamation, “Well, we’re here, aren’t we?” – a circular argument assuming what needs to be proved. Speculations belong in Fantasyland, not chemistry.

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