Discovery on Life’s Origin May 14, 2009

Discovery on Life’s Origin

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association

For me, one of the worst things about dying will be that I won’t get to know what happens next.  I’ll miss so many interesting discoveries and ideas!  News stories like this one reported in the NYTimes today are so exciting: Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be The Starting Point for Life

[An English chemist] has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.

I confess that I don’t know much about the origin of life.  But then, unlike others (*cough* Biblical Literalists *cough*), I never claim to.

We now have a plausible way two of the four nucleotides found in RNA could have formed.  So not everything is solved, but Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues may have cracked one of the toughest parts.

The spontaneous appearance of such nucleotides on the primitive earth “would have been a near miracle,” two leading researchers, Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel, wrote in 1999. Others were so despairing that they believed some other molecule must have preceded RNA and started looking for a pre-RNA world.

The miracle seems now to have been explained. In the article in Nature, Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and Béatrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. they discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.

It could be the caffeine I just had, but I find myself feeling proud of humanity and our progress in understanding the world.

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  • Vic

    Very exciting!

  • Reginald Selkirk

    some background on the RNA World theory.

    If a creationist starts nattering about the probability of proteins spontaneously assembling, you can be sure that they have no clue about current OOL (origins of life) science.

  • It’s only a matter of time before science sheds plausible light on the origin-of-life issue. Creationists will then have to retreat and hunker down in the next receding gap in scientific knowledge. It’s an interesting little game that is played. I guess as long as there are things not yet explained, there will be creationists worshiping their “god of the gaps”.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Dr. Sutherland’s proposal has not convinced everyone. Dr. Robert Shapiro, a chemist at New York University, said the recipe “definitely does not meet my criteria for a plausible pathway to the RNA world.” He said that cyano-acetylene, one of Dr. Sutherland’s assumed starting materials, is quickly destroyed by other chemicals and its appearance in pure form on the early earth “could be considered a fantasy.”

    Dr. Sutherland replied that the chemical is consumed fastest in the reaction he proposes, and that since it has been detected on Titan there is no reason it should not have been present on the early earth.


  • Jim

    I have been reading a book called, “The Spark of Life, Darwin and the Primordial Soup” written by Christopher Wills and Jeffery Bada.

    It is a great primer for those that were fascinated by the Miller-Urey experiment which was done decades ago and which produced amino acids out of a simple mix of elemental pieces.

    The book covers several theories about the origin of life. These more recent discoveries about RNA are like an extra chapter to that book.

    I’m just a layman in the topic as well, with no formal experience with chemistry and I grasped the concepts in the book pretty well, I think. What I mean to say is that it’s a good read for someone that wants to know more about the quest for the origins of life on our planet.

  • Epistaxis

    Strange how this breakthrough was made by evilutionists and not the Discovery Institute. It’s almost like one side is trying harder than the other to actually figure out the truth.

  • It warms the cockles of my heart and makes me want to yell “in your face” at a creationist. Sadly they won’t listen.

  • This is great work, but as someone whose Ph.D. work was in astrobiology and the evolution of biochemistry, I personally find the entire “RNA world” hypothesis difficult to swallow. (This is the hypothesis that autocatalytic self-reproducing RNA molecules were the first kind of life. It stems from the discovery that the ribosome, most ancient and unique among catalytic proteins, has an RNA backbone in its structure.)

    The problem with the RNA world hypothesis is that all of the reactions studied are endothermic – they require the input of massive amounts of energy. The RNA world experimenters for the most part are pouring in buckets of energy to drive their reactions forward, and eliding the fact that their hypothesis does not explain where this energy would have come from in the primordial world.

    I personally think that *metabolism* needs to come before genome replication. You can’t replicate something if you don’t have an energy source to drive the reactions: to find the earliest origins of life, follow the energy, not the information. See work by Gunther Wachtershauser for someone who, while maybe not entirely accurate, is at least barking up the correct tree.

    But that’s the great thing about science – it allows dissent, and through that dialogue we eventually arrive at greater truths.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    (This is the hypothesis that autocatalytic self-reproducing RNA molecules were the first kind of life. It stems from the discovery that the ribosome, most ancient and unique among catalytic proteins, has an RNA backbone in its structure.)

    The RNA World theory began to be taken seriously in the 1980s, when the existence of catalytic RNA was discovered. It has been known for some time (maybe half a century) that ribosomes contain RNA as well as protein. Around the turn of the century, the crystal structure of ribosomes revealed that the catalytic core of the ribosome is composed of RNA. This is certainly not the entirety of evidence for the RNA world.

    But that’s the great thing about science – it allows dissent,…

    Which is not to say that all dissenting views are equally well-informed and equally attuned to the available evidence.

  • mikespeir

    It won’t matter. Creationists can always retreat into, “Just because it could have happened that way doesn’t mean it did happen that way.”

  • “The priests used to say that faith can move mountains, and nobody believed them. Today the scientists say that they can level mountains, and nobody doubts them.” -Joseph Campbell

    Science 1 Creationism 0

  • Shirakawasuna

    Correction: two ribonucleotides. They also synthesized uracil by treating the cytidine w/ UV light.

  • MattB

    Of course the creationists (Deists in particular) can always resort to the belief that ‘God’ created the necessary environment and chemicals in order for humans to evolve. From their point of view, this sort of discovery merely takes us closer to the mind of God, rather than the beginning of life. It provides creationists with a very convenient and unasailable position. Something even Dawkins acknowledges by saying he could never be more than 99.9% atheist! – a rationality seldom found in the thinking of creationists!

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