September 14, 2022 | David F. Coppedge

How to Charge Your Smartphone on a Grill

It can be done, but there are certain other requirements
that are not likely to happen naturally.

— Sometimes an easily-explained metaphor communicates the gist of an argument quickly. —

The Discovery Institute announced the release of a new video in its “Long Story Short” series about the origin of life (Evolution News, 12 Sept 2022). Entitled “Challenge to the Origin of Life: Energy Harnessing,” this 11-minute video, episode #4 in the origin of life series, contains a simple easy-to-share analogy for those trying to communicate physical problems with origin-of-life theories: can you charge your smartphone on a grill?

Watch the video at the Discovery Science channel on YouTube now. Then we will see whether recent scientific papers and articles offer any answers to these challenges.

In a nutshell, here are some main points and keepers from the video:

  • ATP synthase is a rotary motor that generates 3 ATP per revolution.

    Life involves gradients, which go against natural tendencies.

  • Energy must be harnessed by complex machinery to be useful.
  • Chemiosmotic coupling is life’s universal way of creating electrical gradients to harness energy.
  • The body’s “battery” is ATP. ATP is like a fully charged battery. ADP is like a dead battery.
  • ATP Synthase, which charges ATP from ADP, is incredibly amazing and fast! (see quote below).
  • Your body uses one billion trillion ATP molecules per second, equal to your body weight of ATP every day.
  • It takes 7 ATP molecules to charge one ADP molecule.
  • To use ATP, an enzyme needs a matching interface.
  • Life’s energy harnessing process is one big paradox: you need it before you can have it, and you can’t make it until you already made it.
  • Hydrothermal vents are not suitable places for natural energy gradients chemically or temporally.
  • Fermentation and other energy harnessing processes do not get around the paradox; they only make it worse.
  • Postulating unknown molecules for harnessing energy creates another problem of getting it switched over to ATP, for which there is no evidence.
  • Time is of no help in overcoming these difficulties, because ATP cannot be stored for long.

The video features a cartoony view of ATP synthase, a complex molecular rotary engine that charges 3 ADP to ATP per rotation. It quotes science writer Nick Lane discussing this motor as

the most impressive nanomachine of them all… it is hard to convey the astonishing complexity of this protein motor. This is precision engineering of the highest order, a magical device, and the more we learn about it, the more marvelous it becomes.” [Nick Lane, The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life, Norton & Company 2015, p. 82.]


What Are Origin-of-Life Scientists Saying About This Recently?

Cooperative molecular networks may have been the spark of life on other planets (Oudem Nouvelles, 22 May 2022). A French Canadian pictures natural selection occurring between molecules acting as “cooperators” and “free riders” according to game theory. No facts, no chemistry, no ATP, no information described, just his imaginary story.

Scientists announce a breakthrough in determining life’s origin on Earth—and maybe Mars (Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution via, 3 June 2022). Speculations about spontaneous formation of nucleic acids. Acknowledgement that such chemicals store genetic information, but no explanation where the information comes from.

Did volcanic ‘glasses’ help spark early life? (Science Magazine, 3 June 2022). Jack Szostak comments on experiments that supposedly form long strands of RNA. Szostak not impressed: “I find it very frustrating that the authors have made an interesting initial finding but then decided to go with the hype rather than the science.” No mention of energy harnessing, ATP, cells or molecular motors.

Ancient microbes may help us find extraterrestrial life forms (UC Riverside News, 27 June 2022). Speculations about natural formation of rhodopsin and other “light-capturing proteins” but ignores ATP, chemiosmotic coupling, molecular motors, and information.

Mars as a time machine to Precambrian Earth (Journal of the Geological Society, 7 June 2022). Mentions energy gradients but speculates about how they emerged (perhaps in hydrothermal vents) on a world without plate tectonics. No mention of ATP, information, molecular machines or energy harvesting: in brief, the invention of grills for charging life’s smartphone.

Bioenergetics of early life (EMBO Reports, 21 July 2022). This is the closest attempt to deal with the problems shown in the video. Aleksandrova and Donfio get into the origin of bioenergetics. They discuss ATP, ATP synthase, the electron transport chain, and information processing—but only in a hypothetical, to-be-discovered manner invoking futureware. The paper rates high on the perhapsimaybecouldness scale:

How can chemistry turn into biology? How can living cells be built from molecules? These are fundamental questions in biology and, despite much research efforts, remain unanswered. Yet, the past two decades have seen considerable advances in our knowledge of how and which (bio)physical and (bio)chemical processes could have driven the emergence of the first living cells. These achievements have led not only to a better understanding of the molecular origins of life, but also spurred significant developments in synthetic biology, biophysics and supramolecular chemistry. Although the exact events that sparked life on Earth will quite likely remain a mystery, at least partially, exploring the chemical origins of life offers clues about our primordial past and could contribute to shaping our future.

They recognize the challenge of explaining ATP synthase. How simple could it be and still work? They leave it as an unanswered problem.

In modern eukaryotic cells, the proton gradient generated across the inner mitochondrial membrane fuels the synthesis of ATP via ATP synthase. This is another challenge: the chemical synthesis of ATP—or its prebiotic analogues, such as thioesters—is not trivial. However, the greatest challenge in recapitulating the gradient-driven production of ATP is the ATP synthase itself: it is a large protein assembly that combines catalytic and ATP-binding units with pH-sensitive modules. Insight into how this complex, yet elegant machinery evolved remains elusive. A minimal version of such a biomolecular motor would need to exploit a concentration gradient to synthesize high-energy molecules. That is, a primitive ATP synthase would need to “sense” variations in pH on both sides of the membrane and, in response to it, drive the synthesis of ATP or its prebiotic analogues.

Then they change the subject to bioengineering, which is intelligent design. That’s a big dodge!

Scripps Research scientists discover new “origins of life” chemical reactions (Scripps Institute, 28 July 2022). R. Krishnamurthy is again promoting his metabolism-first scenario with a “chemical soup” scenario. He says nothing about ATP, molecular motors, cells, energy harvesting or information.

Complex Coacervate Droplets as a Model Material for Studying the Electrodynamic Response and Manipulation of Biological Materials (University of Houston, 4 Aug 2022). A revisit of the old “complex coacervate” idea without giving any credit to Oparin. Envisions life emerging from droplets similar to those when you shake olive oil in water. No mention of ATP, energy, information or molecular machines.

Homochirality and chiral-induced spin selectivity: A new spin on the origin of life (Bloom et al., PNAS 10 Aug 2022). To work, biomolecules must have the same handedness (chirality). This paper discusses a new effort by the Sasselov team to answer the homochirality problem with something called “chiral-induced spin selectivity” (CISS), claiming that a tiny enantiomeric excess can be amplified. The reviewers call CISS “an attractive candidate to explore” but say it needs to be tested in prebiotic conditions. No mention of information, molecular machines, cells or energy harnessing systems.

Bringing inanimate matter to life (Science Magazine, 30 June 2022). We end with this book review by Joseph Moran of Nick Lane’s newest book, Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death. Nick Lane is the writer who gave that quote above about ATP synthase. Of this new book, Moran says,

The incredible scientific advances centered around DNA, RNA, and proteins have left many people with the impression that the essence of life is found in genetic information. Yet a cell that died seconds ago contains the same genes that it did moments earlier, suggesting that there are other processes at play that bring the inanimate to life. In his latest book, Transformer, biochemist Nick Lane reminds readers in accessible prose that it is life’s dynamic chemistry, its metabolism, that draws inanimate matter into the living state and back again. As Lane puts it, metabolism is not just “what keeps us alive—it is what being alive is.”

The book apparently focuses on the Krebs cycle in metabolism. Lane has apparently become entranced by the teachings of Wächtershäuser, Mike Russell, and Bill Martin, who envision life emerging at hydrothermal vents simply because they can imagine energy gradients there.

But moving from genetic information to metabolism seems a dodge. Metabolic motors are built by molecular machines constructed using ATP from genetic codes. One cannot exist without the other. The book review does not indicate if Lane has answered two challenges in the video: how could there be a takeover” of chemiosmotic coupling using ATP if such a metabolic cycle emerged with other chemicals, and how pores in hydrothermal vent towers could create sustained energy gradients. Without machinery to harness the energy gradient, Lane is trying to charge his smartphone on a grill.

Ironically, ID supporters have used the “dead cell with all the genetic information” thought experiment to argue against a naturalistic origin of life. A test tube with a cell that has been poked to leak out all its contents would seem an ideal situation for life’s emergence. We all know it will never happen, though; there’s no way to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

If you talk with someone who thinks the origin of life is possible at a hydrothermal vent or from sparks on a planet, ask them if they can charge their smartphone on a grill. Here is another useful metaphor: In a recorded interview from 2002, Phillip E. Johnson, a pioneer of the Intelligent Design movement and author of Darwin on Trial, stated that origin-of-life researchers tend to focus on the chemicals, but never talk about the information content in the molecules of life. This is like focusing on the bumps on a DVD and not seeing the movie encoded in those bumps.

We don’t have a copy of Lane’s new book; we encourage someone to see what he has to say now about ATP, ATP synthase, molecular machines, chemiosmotic coupling, energy harnessing, and information processing.

It should be noted that the main argument in the video about the need to harness energy in a controlled fashion with machines is not new. Dr. Henry M. Morris, Jr. used this argument in his debates with evolutionists back in the 1970s and 80s. “A bull in a china shop creates energy,” he would quip, but does not create order. If energy were sufficient, he would continue, you could pour gasoline on a car and light it on fire to make it run. The only way a car can use the energy of gasoline is with controlled miniature explosions in an engine with spark plugs, cylinders, and a drive shaft.

Highly-visual, easily-explained illustrations like these are helpful for conveying truth about physics to those who have become hypnotized by naturalistic claims that science is getting close to explaining the origin of life. No; they are farther away from that hope than ever.

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