Geoscience Research Institute


George T. Javor
Professor of Biochemistry
Loma Linda University

Origins 25(1):2-48 (1998).


Chapter 1: Is There Such a Thing as Life?
Chapter 2: The Matter of Life and Death
Chapter 3: What Makes a Cell Tick?
Chapter 4: Once Upon a Time There was a Molecule
Chapter 5: Message of the Molecules

Cover Picture



    Does life have a purpose, or are we here merely by chance? Everyone has probably been confronted with that question at some point in life. Many of us have concluded that life does have a purpose, that there is a Creator who had us in mind. But just when we think we are sure of the answer, some unexpected crisis may bring the question back to haunt us. Is there anything in nature itself that points to an intelligent Designer?
    In this special issue, Dr. Javor suggests that life itself provides evidence that there must be a Designer. That evidence can be divided into four arguments.
    Dr. Javor's first argument is that living matter is organized into interdependent systems, arranged hierarchically. A large number of interdependent components must all be in place in order for the living system to function. The term "irreducible complexity" has been applied to such systems, with the inference that such systems require intelligent design to come into existence. An intelligent Creator is the best explanation for the interdependent systems of living organisms.
    A second argument is that the disequilibrium of living systems could not arise spontaneously. Life is based on many series of interacting chemical reactions, none of which must be allowed to reach chemical equilibrium. All chemical reactions tend toward equilibrium, but chemical equilibrium in living cells means death. How, then, could non-equilibrium conditions originate in a nonliving system? There seems to be no naturalistic answer to this question. An intelligent Creator provides the best available explanation for the origins of the chemical disequilibrium that is responsible for making cells alive.
    The third argument is also chemical in nature. What is the source for the biomolecules required for life? These biomolecules apparently require highly improbable conditions for their origins. Conditions to produce one essential type of molecule may prohibit formation of another type of molecule equally necessary for life. Chance seems unable to produce any of the complex biopolymers needed for life. Molecular sequences with informational content for specific functions are vital for life processes. The potential number of different sequences is exceedingly vast, and it seems inconceivable that the small set of sequences appropriate for life could be preferentially created by random processes. Again, chance seems an implausible explanation for the specific informational content of biopolymers. The best available explanation for the existence of the biomolecules of life is an intelligent Creator.
    Dr. Javor's fourth argument is that complex functions, such as seen in living cells, are highly unlikely to arise by chance. Random aggregations of components are highly unlikely to produce any useful function. Functionality of complex systems typically depends on components which are pre-designed. But pre-design implies an intelligent designer and therefore a purpose. Thus, the complex functions of the living cell point to an intelligent Creator as the best explanation for their existence.
    These are strong arguments for a Creator. However, they should not be mistaken for absolute proof. God's existence cannot be proved by science. Many intelligent people have chosen to reject arguments such as those presented here. The point of this presentation is not to claim that we have no other choice than to accept the existence of a Creator, but to show that we do have the choice to accept His existence. Not only is it reasonable to do so, but, in view of the properties of living organisms, it is the best choice available.

            L. James Gibson



    The explosion of biological knowledge continues unabated as we enter the third millennium of the modern era. Highlighting the numerous milestones of achievement are the successful cloning of "Dolly" from the nucleus of a sheep udder cell and the accession of complete genomic nucleotide sequences from over twenty organisms. But our knowledge of life will never be complete until an answer is found to the question, "How did life originate on Earth"?
    It is certain that not too many scientists spend sleepless nights over this question. Most concern themselves with detailed studies of particular biological systems, which usually demand their full attention. Whatever the origin of life is, more practical concerns have to do with understanding the "here and now". In addition, there is very little funding for scientists to ponder the origin of life on a full-time basis.
    In terms of philosophical interest, life's origin ranks with the most profound questions ever raised. Wrapped within this problem are far-ranging implications about the nature of the Universe and our place in it, the meaning and purpose of life, and predictions about the future course of life on Earth. Our model of life's origin also impacts our worldview and religious beliefs.
    Thinking about life's origin, we can walk on one of two mutually exclusive paths. Life on Earth could have been created by an extraterrestrial Creator, or it could have come into existence by a fortunate interplay of nature's forces. Information about the history of Earth would be helpful in deciding between the two options. If Earth and the other planets of the Solar System were indeed born out of a spinning cloud of gas over an extended period of time, as is asserted by many, then it would be easier to suppose that the natural development of life is a continuation of some mysterious ongoing process in the Universe. The opinion of the majority of scientists and philosophers certainly leans in this direction.
    It is not difficult to appreciate why this is so. Scientists are trained to believe that science can explain and solve any problem. This intrinsic optimism is essential to motivate scientists to wrestle new knowledge from the Unknown. With regard to cosmic questions, if one supposes a universe without a Creator, the green light is on to discover the nature of the mindless mechanisms that were responsible for the existence of everything about us. Furthermore, if natural forces were able to accomplish so much creative work, then it is incumbent on scientists to learn more about these forces and possibly harness them.
    But here a problem arises. Scientists are at their best when they study repeatable phenomena. At present, no solar system is forming before our eyes. Even worse, we do not see natural forces producing living organisms from solely nonliving matter. Yet the millions of different life forms we see around us had to originate from somewhere! The scientist, working on the assumption that there has to be a natural explanation for the origin of life, becomes a detective. He is looking for clues to show how Mother Nature brought life to Earth. Experiments are done to test which primordial scenario could more likely bring life into existence.
    Most scientists regard the postulate that our world is here as a result of a Creation event as resorting to "magic" instead of a logical explanation — an abandonment of science. It does not help matters that the story of Earth's creation by a Creator comes from a manuscript that is over three-thousand years old. Since then much has been learned about living things, our world and the Universe. Is it not possible that if the ancients had our scientific knowledge, they would have reported the story of the creation of Earth differently?
    We do not know the answer. What the ancient biblical record reports is that Earth and its biosphere were brought into existence in a creation event that took six days for the Creator to accomplish. To most scientists, this sounds incredible. However, a close look at what is occurring in the biosphere reveals many incredible facts.
    This brief monograph was written to champion the views of a minority in the scientific community. This minority holds that it is possible to accept this ancient report of Earth's creation at face value — and still be a true scientist. But the main purpose is to go a step further. It will be argued that a close examination of life can lead observers to the logical conclusion that life itself is an actual evidence for creation.
    This subject is presented from a biochemical perspective, that is, looking at living matter at the level of atoms and molecules. Although the use of technical terms could not be avoided, they were kept to a minimum. The intent was to communicate as clearly as possible the important molecular concepts undergirding life. It is this writer's conviction that these may be understood without possessing a formal education in chemistry or biochemistry. The biochemical concepts presented here should be useful to all readers, regardless of their philosophical orientation, even if they cannot accept this writer's conclusions.



    The author would like to express appreciation for the insightful comments and helpful suggestions from the reviewers of this manuscript. Any remaining errors are this writer's responsibility.



"Life is a spiritual pickle which keeps the body from decay".
      A. Bierce

    It was Dr. Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist, who wrote: "Life, as such, does not exist".1 Most of us would quickly disagree with him, Nobel prize notwithstanding, because we know that life is all around us in the forms of people, animals, and plants.
    We may not have noticed that he did not actually write "life does not exist", but rather "life as such" does not exist. "What we can see and measure are material systems", continued Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi, "which have the wonderful quality of 'being alive'".1 That is, one cannot put "life" in a test tube. There is no freestanding entity called "life". The Hungarian-born scientist did not deny the concept of life, only that it can exist autonomously, apart from material systems.2,3
    Living organisms blanket the Earth so extensively that a typical gram of soil will contain at least ten thousand microbes. Spores (inert forms of microorganisms) swarm in the air, and specimens of marine life have been seen in the deepest recesses of the oceans, several kilometers in the deep rocks, where hydrostatic pressures approach 1000 atmospheres.
    Not only are living organisms everywhere, they come in an astonishing array of forms. It is estimated that the number of diverse species on our globe runs into the millions!4 Their combined activities make Earth's surface a throbbing web of constant change.
    An important aspect of the biosphere is that diverse orders of organisms support the existence of each other. A prime example is the work of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, without which plants could not access the abundant nitrogen available in the air. Soil microorganisms and bacteria living in the roots of certain legumes in symbiotic relationship convert the nitrogen gas in air to water-soluble nitrates and nitrites. Plants then use these for their growth.
    Plants also utilize carbon dioxide from the air to manufacture carbohydrates, harnessing solar energy. This process, photosynthesis, liberates oxygen. Non-plant organisms use oxygen in generating energy by burning up plant material and by releasing carbon dioxide as waste. This relationship between plants and non-plants is illustrated in Figure 1.1.

FIGURE 1.1. Photosynthesis and the carbon-oxygen cycle throughout the biosphere.

    The mutual interdependence of organisms, as seen in the biosphere today, brings into question whether there ever was a time when only a single form of life existed. While evolutionists have always insisted that this indeed was the case, recently there is a reluctance to become specific about the nature of the putative precursor organism(s) of modern life forms. This happened partly because of the discovery that the chemical makeup of heat-tolerant microorganisms seems to be more similar to eukaryotes (cells with nuclei), than to other forms of bacteria. Thus the previously perceived, clearly defined, relative positions in the hierarchy of eukaryotes over bacteria became bluffed.
    An older pictorial representation of how different organisms were supposed to have evolved from each other is shown in Figure 1.2. All life forms were believed to have originated from ancient "prokaryotic cells".

FIGURE 1.2. An earlier version of the postulated evolutionary relations of the major life forms.5

    This evolutionary bias is seen in the commonly used term "prokaryote", meaning "before kernel" in Greek, to designate any bacterium. (The term "kernel" represents the more commonly used word "nucleus".) The latest evolutionary scheme, shown in Figure 1.3, features a phylogenetic tree, where the trunk and the branch-points are unidentified and it is no longer clear whether the putative evolutionary ancestor was with or without a true nucleus.

FIGURE 1.3. Phylogenic relationships among life forms based on ribosomal RNA sequences.6

    The great variety and abundance of living organisms on Earth is in stark contrast to the apparent sterility of our cosmic neighborhood. Based on several decades of probing, there is no hard evidence to suppose that any extraterrestrial life forms exist in the solar system.7 Furthermore, in the past few years very intensive "listening" has been underway for intelligent extraterrestrial radio signals,8 again, so far with no results. The apparent uniqueness makes the study of life all the more exciting.


    Entire fields of knowledge are connected with studies of living organisms, i.e., biology, microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics. Yet after two centuries of dedicated study we still do not have a very satisfactory definition of life. For example, one dictionary defines life as "the property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, response to stimuli and reproduction".9 This definition accurately describes in a general way the most recognizable features of living organisms, but it does not illuminate the core concept of life. It leaves unspecified what "that property or quality" is, which enables matter to behave in such a unique manner that the term "life" is required to describe it.
    Many forms of living matter exist as hierarchies of increasingly complex structures. Cells join to form tissues, tissues interact to fashion organs, and organs compose organisms. The term "life" has different technical meanings, depending on whether it refers to cells, organs or organisms. This concept may be seen when upon the unfortunate death of an accident victim, his or her organs (which are still "alive") may be transplanted into another person. Under appropriate conditions the new organ will continue to "live" because its individual cells are alive and they interact with each other harmoniously to carry out the organ's functions. It is the cells of the organs that are the smallest units of life. When they die, life disappears. Thus a good place to begin the study of life is the cell.
    Deciphering the composition and workings of cells on the molecular level started in earnest at the beginning of the twentieth century when scientists reached a sophisticated understanding of organic chemistry. Knowledge of the operation of living cells continues to grow to this day at a dizzying pace. As of the middle of 1999 the complete genomic structures of twenty-three organisms are available.10 With the help of computer analysis it has been possible to parse the chromosomes of these organisms into genes. Furthermore, utilizing the concept that genes with similar nucleotide sequences often code for proteins with similar functions, educated guesses are made about the roles of newly found genes. Within a few years we may have a complete understanding of the internal workings of some bacterial cells.
    Beyond achieving an ever-clearer grasp of life-processes, scientists are now able to alter organisms by placing new genes into them. Optimism is rampant that soon we will understand the molecular secrets of cellular differentiation, the formation of diverse daughter cells from one parent cell. Currently a worldwide effort is underway, with the leadership of the United States, to determine the nucleotide sequence of the entire human genome, some 3 to 4 billion nucleotides long. Such knowledge, it is claimed, will enable us to find out how cancer develops and how its spread may be arrested. We may also gain a better understanding of a host of other diseases which are caused by aberrations in the genetic material. Doubtless, we live in the golden age of biology, and we may eagerly anticipate many existing discoveries in the near future! As comprehension of the unique properties of living matter reaches unprecedented heights, we are positioning ourselves to answer the age-old question, What is the origin of life on Earth?


  1. Life is not a freestanding entity. The only experience we have with life is in association with certain types of matter.
  2. Organisms in Earth's biosphere are mutually interdependent.
  3. It is becoming increasingly difficult to postulate the nature of the hypothetical evolutionary ancestor(s) of modern organisms in the light of the unexpected finding of similarities between certain thermophilic organisms and eukaryotes.
  4. The term "life" has different meanings, depending on whether it refers to organisms, organs or cells.
  5. A century of biological and biochemical research has propelled us into the golden age of biology.



  1. Szent-Gyorgyi A. 1972. The living state with observations on cancer. NY and London: Academic Press, p 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. This sort of analysis of life may seem too materialistic to many conscientious persons who perceive that the Bible teaches a different view of life — one which does not insist that it be associated with matter. It is true that scientists have experience only with life as it is found here on Earth, and that there may well exist larger realities which are not now accessible to us.
        Nevertheless, the Bible supports the notion that life is associated with matter. In the second chapter of Genesis, for instance, where the creation of mankind is described, "... the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (v 7). It was the combination of the breath of life and the dust of the ground which gave rise to the living person. Similarly, according to biblical teachings, a person dies when his "breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psalm 146:4). The "return to earth" marks the end point of human existence. Even though his "breath goeth forth", the person's life does not. While one can only speculate on the meaning of the "breath of life" and of the person's "breath", it is clear that life did not continue, because the "thoughts perished". The Bible does not know anything about a disembodied form of life. To embrace the material basis of life on Earth therefore does not make one a materialist.
  4. Starr C, Taggat R. 1992. Biology, the unity and diversity of life. Sixth ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers.
  5. Figure drawn after: Davis BD, Dulbecco R, Eisen HN, Ginsberg HS. 1980. Microbiology. Third ed. Hagerstown, MD: Harper and Row Publishers, p 11.
  6. Figure drawn after: White D. 1995. The physiology and biochemistry of prokaryotes. NY: Oxford University Press, p 4.
  7. The claims of Dr. D.S. Mackay et al. (Science 273 [1996], p 924) regarding meteorite Alh84001 — that it came from Mars and that it contains organic matter from that planet — cannot be considered evidence for extraterrestrial life. Their assertions are based on a one-sided interpretation of the actual data presented.
  8. SETI Institute News release on the Internet, February 12, 1998.
  9. The American Heritage Dictionary. 1991. Second college ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  10. As of June 1999, twenty-three complete genome sequences of organisms have been published. These are: Aeropyrnum pernix K1, Archeoglobus fulgidus, Aquifex aeolicus, Borrelia burgdorferi, Bacillus subtilis, Caenorhabditis elegans, Chlamydia pneumoniae, Chlamydia trachomatis, Escherichia coli, Haemophilus influenzae, Helicobacter pylori, Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum, Methanococcus jannaschii, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Mycoplasma genitalium, Plasmodium falciparum, Pyrococcus horikoshii, Rickettsia prowazekii, Sacharomyces cerevisiae, Synecocystis PCC6803, Thermotoga maritima, Treponema pallidum. Also available are the complete genome sequences of at least 180 viruses and of 13 bacteriophages. In progress are the genome sequence determinations of at least a dozen other bacterial and 17 multicellular species. This information was obtained from the Internet, under "Genome Sequencing Projects".



"Material things I touch and taste and see, all other things are immaterial to me".
      A. Bierce

    What is the difference between living and inanimate matter? Intuitively, we are confident that we can easily tell the difference between them. But, with the rapid increase in computer technology, could it happen that artificial intelligence one day will effectively mimic aspects of human reasoning and behavior? Such scenarios have already been presented in science fiction, where humans had to deal with a supercomputer "Hal" in 2001, a Space Odyssey, or with lifelike robots in the tale The Stepford Wives. What criteria would we use in deciding that those moving and talking mannequins were lifeless after all?
    Paul Weiss, a well-known biologist, wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece entitled "Life on Earth (by a Martian)".1 In this story, some Martians came to visit Earth in search of life. After lengthy and careful observation of our planet, they concluded that life did indeed exist here, and furthermore, one life form was predominant. They named it the "Earthian" and faithfully chronicled its every particular. Apparently the Earthians had intricate symmetrical bodies; they moved, emitted heat and sounds, and ate (mostly liquid food). Sometimes they divided, and they eventually died. Which organism did the Martians observe and describe? Automobiles, of course! (The Martians also noticed some rather unimpressive structures associated with the Earthians, and they concluded that these were some sort of parasites, unworthy of further study.)
    Our capacity to determine whether or not an entity is alive is limited by our previous experiences with living organisms. If we landed on a new planet, we could find it difficult to decide whether or not life was present.


    In the 1970s the United States sent two automated laboratories to Mars to determine if living organisms existed there. The results of the biology experiments strongly suggested some kind of biological activity on Mars. Carbon dioxide was released when a nutrient-rich liquid mixture was incubated with a scoop of Martian soil. In an Earth-based laboratory, the results would have constituted compelling evidence for the presence of life. Yet scientists interpreting the data which was radioed back from Mars were forced to conclude that in all likelihood Mars was sterile. The reason was that chemical analyses of the Martian surface indicated the complete lack of carbon-containing substances, other than the gas carbon dioxide.2 Now we know that the iron-rich surface, activated by ultraviolet radiation, degraded the radioactive test substances, resulting in false chemical signals. This is an example of carefully designed experiments, aimed at distinguishing between the presence or absence of life on the red planet, that were not quite equal to the task.


    There are those who see an unbroken continuum between living and nonliving matter. If this is so, the question of life's origin becomes a moot point. Viruses, prions, mycoplasmas, rickettsiae and chlamidiae are offered as examples of organisms that bridge the chasm between living and nonliving. But the differences between living and nonliving matter are in fact so great that this chasm cannot be spanned.
    Although viruses and prions are made from biopolymers, they are no more alive than the enzyme additives in some detergents. Viruses are lifeless complexes of proteins and nucleic acids. The biological activity of viruses, including their replication, is completely dependent on the metabolic activity of the infected cell. Prions are unique proteins that alter the structure of certain other proteins. The newly changed proteins in turn acquire prion-type activity, creating a domino effect of protein alteration. This property of prions renders them infectious. For reproduction, prions, like viruses, are wholly dependent on live cells.
    Rickettsiae, chlamidiae and mycoplasmas, on the other hand, are among the smallest known living organisms, and are very much alive. The fact that chlamidiae and rickettsiae are obligate intracellular parasites only means that they have serious metabolic deficiencies. A clear distinction between living entities and nonliving substances is essential for a consideration of whether it is possible to go from one state to the other. For this reason we need to descend into the submicroscopic world of matter.
    The elemental compositions of living and nonliving matter differ greatly.4 The actual chemical determination of living matter is done on "once-living matter". Before chemists can analyze living matter, they have to take it apart to isolate its individual components, thereby killing it. Thus the actual phenomenon of "life" is not amenable to detailed chemical scrutiny. In the very process of laying hold of isolated "purified" components of living matter, "life" slips out between the chemists' fingers, and what remains is an inert, "lifeless" substance. This is so because living cells are composed of lifeless, nonliving components. The implication is that the difference between life and death is a question of how biomatter is organized. Therefore, it should be possible to reverse the killing of cells by restoring them to their pre-disruption state. Why this has not yet been done in the laboratory will be discussed in the next chapter.
    The chemical evolutionary issue can be reduced to answering a two-part question: 1) Is it conceivable that appropriate types of biomatter could have emerged on a hypothetical primordial earth; and 2) If these substances existed, could they have combined to form living matter?
    Chemists have obtained valuable information regarding the differences in the composition of "once-living" matter and of "never-living" substances. Never-living matter — rocks, minerals, air, water, etc. — consists of small molecules, often with high oxygen content. These "oxides" are sturdy substances, stable under heat and mechanical stress. A good example is silicon dioxide — sand, a most abundant gritty stuff.
    Living and once-living organic matter, in contrast, is predominantly constituted from large molecules which contain thousands, or even millions, of atoms. The oxygen content in these substances is low, but if oxygen is allowed to interact freely with these molecules, they lose biological activity. Surrounded by a sea of oxygen, living matter continually fights the inroads of this element with oxygen-neutralizing mechanisms. Fragile biomolecules are easily degraded or deformed by heat or mechanical stress.
    The large qualitative differences between living and inanimate matter have been recognized for hundreds of years. Scientists initially thought that biological material could be produced only by living organisms, so they called these "organic". But in 1828 the German chemist Frederich Wohler accidentally produced urea by heating potassium cyanate with ammonium sulfate. Urea was at that time already recognized as an animal waste product, definitely "organic" in nature. Scientists quickly realized the implications of this breakthrough discovery. The production of biological matter did not, after all, depend on "life forces". The term "organic" was retained to designate all compounds that contain carbon, with a few exceptions such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbides, carbonates, cyanides and isocyanates.
    Although the types of life-forms run into the millions, their general chemical compositions have important similarities. The gross chemical composition of the well-studied colon organism Escherichia coli represents the "typical cell" (see Table 2.1).

TABLE 2.1. Components of Escherichia coli Cells3

Component Percent of Total Weight Molecules Per Cell Number of Different Kinds of Molecules
Water 70 24.3 billion  1
Proteins 15 2.4 million approx. 4,000
Nucleic acids   7    255 thousand 660
Polysaccharides   3 1.4 million 3
Lipids   2 22 million 50-100
Metabolic intermediates   2 many millions  800
Minerals   1 many millions  10-30

    The high water content of living matter prompted Dr. Szent-Gyorgyi to write: "we are a walking aquarium".5 We need all that water to enable most chemical transformations of life to take place.
    The importance of water for life-processes can be demonstrated quite dramatically with freeze-dried microorganisms. We can collect bacteria from growth in a liquid medium in the form of a wet paste. Rapidly freezing this material and placing it under vacuum causes the frozen water to leave the bacteria unobtrusively, and the former wet paste turns into powder. The dried microscopic cells are now in a state of suspended animation. They are neither alive, nor are they dead. They can be stored indefinitely in the dried state, without any change in their status. However, by simply mixing the powder with water and the appropriate nutrients, the dormant cells spring into life once again. In this procedure we manipulate life on the cellular level by withdrawing an all-important cellular component. The most remarkable aspect of this process is the reversibility of the life-processes by manipulating only the water content of the cells!


    The bulk of dry matter in all organisms (more than 90%) is composed of the biopolymers: proteins, nucleic acids, polysaccharides and lipids. A common feature of these four classes of substances is that they contain many repeats of small building-block substances. Very significantly, all chemical linkages between the building blocks are created by dehydration. That is, the building blocks of all biopolymers are linked by splitting out water between them. This information is summarized in Table 2.2.

TABLE 2.2. How the Biopolymers Are Put Together

Protein Amino acid Peptide bond
Nucleic acid Nucleotide N-glycosidic and phosphodiester bonds
Polysaccharides Monosaccharide (simple sugar) Glycosidic bonds
Lipids* Glycerol, fatty acids Ester bonds

*Lipids are not true biopolymers, but they often aggregate to form large structures, such as membranes. Also, only a single type of lipid is listed here. In reality, there are many different kinds of lipids, with diverse compositions.

    One of the challenges of chemical evolutionary postulates is to explain how these biopolymers could arise in a world assumed to be covered with water. It is a most difficult task to form new chemical bonds by eliminating water in an aqueous environment!


    The bulk of biomatter is made from proteins. These are a most interesting and versatile class of materials. In each cell there are hundreds to thousands of different types of proteins, each with different chemical and physical characteristics. Such diversity is due to both their great size (they are composed typically of long strings of amino acids) and to the fact that any amino acid may be one of twenty different kinds.7 What each protein is capable of doing depends a great deal on the actual order in which the amino acids are linked. This feature of biology is similar to a written language.
    A word's meaning depends on the sequence of its letters. We choose from 26 letters of the English alphabet to make words. An estimated 500,000 different combinations of letters in our language are recognized as meaningful. With some effort, we could come up with many more sets of 500,000 combinations of letters that would be nonsensical (Dr. Seuss started a nice collection of these). Similarly, the millions of proteins represent only a tiny fraction of all possible combinations of amino acids.
    Misspelling words jeopardizes their meaning. Likewise, for proteins to function properly their amino acids must follow each other in a correct order.8 For example, the oxygen-carrying component in our blood — hemoglobin — is built from 4 separate protein chains, each of which is a string of 142-146 amino acids. In an inherited illness called "sickle-cell anemia", the gene for one of the protein chains of hemoglobin sends out incorrect information to the protein-making complex. This results in placing a wrong amino acid in the sixth position of a specific sequence of the 146. This alteration is enough to lead to distortion of the red blood cell, to anemia, to many other problems, and, sadly, to death in many cases. While not all changes in amino-acid sequences have such drastic consequences, this somewhat extreme example underscores the importance of the correct order of amino acids for proteins.
    The amino-acid sequences of proteins are crucial components of the biological information content of cells. Proteins themselves are considered informational biomolecules. But how does the protein-building apparatus know the correct amino-acid sequence for each of the thousands of different proteins found in the cell?
    The answer is that the genes of each cell are libraries containing just such information. When the cell needs to make a certain type of protein, it sends a copy of its amino-acid sequence information to the protein-synthesizing complex. Bacteria, with a thousand different proteins, have a minimum of a thousand genes. The recent triumph of obtaining the complete nucleotide sequence of organisms has enabled us to count their genes and even to assign a function to many of them. Table 2.3 shows a compilation for three microorganisms: Haemophilus influenzae (1743 genes), Mycoplasma genitalium (471 genes) and Escherichia coli (4288 genes). The first two organisms grow only inside humans in a nutritionally rich environment. Escherichia coli, on the other hand, can proliferate independently and may be considered a free-living organism.

TABLE 2.3. Distribution of Genes by Their Functions in Three Bacterial Cells9

Function H. influenzae U. genitalium E. coli
Amino acid metabolism   68     1 131
Biosynthesis of cofactors, prosthetic groups and carriers   54     5 103
Cell envelope   84   17 195
Cellular processes   53   21 188
Central intermediary metabolism   30     6 188
Energy metabolism 105   31 243
Fatty acid and phospholipid metabolism   26     6   48
Purines, pyrimidines, nucleosides and nucleotides   53   19   58
Regulatory functions   64     7   45
Replication   87   32 115
Transcription   27   12   55
Translation 141 101 182

    From this table it is seen that E. coli requires more than 1500 different proteins for growth. Most of these proteins are biocatalysts — "enzymes" — that promote specific chemical conversions.
    As for the biological functions of the other three classes of biopolymers, nucleic acids are the repositories and transmitters of the genetic information; lipids segregate the interior of the cell from its environment and, along with polysaccharides, serve as energy reserves. In microorganisms, polysaccharides also constitute part of the cell's outer envelope.
    The non-polymeric, small metabolites are only a small portion of the cell by weight, but their presence is absolutely essential for life-processes. In fact, it is the chemical transformations of these compounds that make life possible. (This topic is explored further in the next chapter.) Metabolic intermediates represent transitional substances between precursors and building blocks. Building blocks are used, of course, to make the all-important biopolymers. These in turn are assembled into more complex supramolecular assemblies and organelles.
    Matter is organized into successively more complex hierarchies in cells. The logical interdependency among cellular components in the vertical hierarchy parallels nicely the logical ties that connect letters with words, words with sentences, sentences with paragraphs, etc., all the way to the level of a completed manuscript. This concept is illustrated in Figure 2.1.

FIGURE 2.1. Organization of matter in the cell.

    A crucial difference between biomatter and written material, however, is that the degree of tolerance for error is much smaller in biology. If words are misspelled, sentences are garbled, paragraphs do not hang together, or even if entire chapters are missing from a manuscript, the document may still be partially useful. But given the tight functional interdependence of its components from precursors and biopolymers, cells are in trouble with less than a full complement of all their parts. Each living cell contains thousands of different kinds of substances, present in multiple copies, and sequestered, in the case of a bacterium, in a volume of a few cubic micrometers (see Table 2.1).
    At the level of supramolecular assemblies and above, the various strands in Figure 2.1, which represent classes of biopolymers, are intertwined into increasingly complex entities. The biological information in the genetic material and in the many protein molecules becomes a coherent whole somewhat the way paragraphs support each other in a good story. The "story" in this case is the life of the cell.
    Besides vertical interdependence, there is also a horizontal complementation among the components. One illustration of this interdependence is that the manufacture of proteins requires nucleic acids and, conversely, nucleic acids cannot be made without proteins. This circular relationship between proteins and nucleic acids from a chemical evolutionary viewpoint resembles the classic "chicken and egg" problem.


  1. Although there are many differences between living organisms and inanimate matter, in an unfamiliar setting it may be difficult to distinguish between them. On Earth the lines of demarcation between living organisms and inanimate matter are clear.
  2. The chemical makeup of living matter consists of large amounts of biopolymers and smaller amounts of metabolites in an aqueous setting.
  3. Living matter is organized into hierarchies, with the components being organizationally interdependent in both the vertical and the horizontal dimensions.



  1. Weiss PA. 1973. A random walk in science. London and Bristol: The Institute of Physics; NY: Crane, Russel and Co., p 124-136.
  2. Biemann K, Oro J, Toulmin P (III), Orgel LE, Nier AO, Anderson DM, Simmonds PG, Flory D, Diaz AV, Rushneck DR, Biller JA. 1976. Search for organic and volatile inorganic compounds in two surface samples from the Chryse Planitia region of Mars. Science 194:72-76.
  3. These numbers are based on data from: Neidhardt FC, editor. 1966. Escherichia coli and Salmonella. Washington DC: ASM Press, p 14.
  4. The availability of each type of atom is different; some are very abundant on Earth, while others are quite scarce. Out of every 100 atoms on Earth, 62 are oxygen, 21 are silicon, 7 are sodium, and 2 are iron. The remaining 8 atoms may be any of the other elements. To find a carbon atom, for instance, we would have to sort through about 8000 atoms.
        In contrast, among atoms found in living matter, out of every 100, 60 are hydrogen, 26 are oxygen, and 11 are carbon. Thus it is clear that the atomic content of living matter does not reflect the general composition of Earth.
  5. Szent-Gyorgyi A. 1972. The living state. NY: Academic Press, p 8.
  6. A curious fact about nearly all "building-block" type substances is that they are structurally asymmetric, i.e., these substances do not have an axis of symmetry. As such, each molecule has a non-biological "twin" which has identical atomic composition to the biologically important subunit, except that the atoms are arranged backwards, and the two structures are spatially mirror images of each other.
        Asymmetric substances are similar to our left and right hands, which are nonsymmetric mirror images of each other. When a chemical process is used in the laboratory to produce one of these asymmetric substances, the outcome is invariably a fifty-fifty mix of the substance and its mirror image.
        Biological systems, on the other hand, are able to produce these asymmetric substances without the contaminating presence of their mirror images. This is accomplished with the help of biological catalysts, called enzymes.
  7. The number of possible different sequences for a 100-amino-acid-long protein is 1.2´10130, or 12 followed by 129 zeros!
  8. The function of proteins frequently depends on their three-dimensional shapes. The order in which amino acids are linked together influences the protein's shape immensely.
  9. The information in Table 2.3 was compiled from three articles: (a) Fraser CM, Gocayne JD, White O, Adams MD, Clayton RA, Fleischmann RD, Bult CJ, Kerlavage AR, Sutton G, Kelley JM, et al. 1995. The minimal gene complement of Mycoplasma genitalium [see comments]. Science 270:397-403; (b) Fleischmann RD, Adams MD, White O, Clayton RA, Kirkness EF, Kerlavage AR, Bult CJ, Tomb JF, Dougherty BA, Merrick JM, et al. 1995. Whole-genome random sequencing and assembly of Haemophilus influenzae Rd [see comments]. Science 269:496-512; and (c) Blattner FR, Plunkett G (III), Bloch CA, Perna NT, Burland V, Riley M, Collado-Vides J, Glasner JD, Rode CK, Mayhew GF, et al. 1997. The complete genome sequence of Escherichia coli K-12 [comment]. Science 277:1453-1474.
        In this table the only genes listed are those whose functions have been identified, at least in a preliminary fashion. For each organism, only 50-60% of the genes are accounted for.



"Old chemists never die, they just reach equilibrium".

    In presenting a case for a tight logical link between analyzing the molecular aspects of life and the creationist paradigm, it is not enough to enumerate the components of living matter. Simply knowing the components of living matter is not enough to account for its biological activity. Living matter behaves differently than its isolated components. Living cells incorporate selected substances and utilize them either for energy or as building blocks for growth. They also secrete metabolic waste. Living cells grow and divide into daughter cells. Lastly, when cells recognize unfavorable environmental conditions, they make metabolic adjustments to preserve their existence.1 Living matter gives every indication that it "wants" to stay alive. This is a property of the complex network of components in living matter. The whole seems to be more than the sum of its parts. If we collect all of the ingredients from live cells, lace them in a membrane-enclosed vesicle, we have an inert, "lifeless" assembly of biomatter. This bag may be stored indefinitely in an environment hospitable for life, without the actual emergence of life. If we periodically analyzed the contents of this artificial "cell", we would find little change in its chemical composition. Such an arrangement of matter is called equilibrium.2
    If we sampled the composition of life cells growing in a defined laboratory setting, surprisingly, the results would be similar, that is, we would find the chemical composition of live cells quite constant. But instead of the term "equilibrium", we say that matter in live cells is in a "steady state system". The significant difference between the two is the dynamic flux of matter through live cells.
    A mechanical illustration of this difference is shown in Figure 3.1. Here, the contents of both vessels remain unchanged over time, but there is constant movement of liquid through vessel A. The flow of molecules through cells is an essential feature of life. (In contrast, the liquid in container B is stagnant.) The movement of water through a compartment, representing the flux of matter through the cell, is an oversimplification of what actually occurs. In reality matter changes as it travels through the cell. The incoming precursors (biomonomers) are simple substances which are gradually built up to successively more complex structures. In Figure 3.2 this is represented by the arrows on the right, marked "biosynthesis" and "assembly".

FIGURE 3.1. A comparison of the concept of steady state (A) and equilibrium (B).3

FIGURE 3.2. Movement of matter through the cell.

    To complete the circuit, the biosynthetic flow of matter is balanced by a set of degradative pathways. The very existence of degradative pathways in the cell is remarkable, in view of the fact that biopolymers and the successively more complex structures are made at prodigious expenditure of energy. Their constant degradation and remodeling would seem a phenomenal waste. But we now know that in the course of metabolism, components sustain oxidative damage with time. Accumulation of damaged metabolites would clog the cell's machinery. The constant turnover of biomatter preempts such a scenario.
    However, since both biosynthesis and degradation are occurring in the same cell, the two processes need to balance. An excess rate of degradation over biosynthesis would be particularly disastrous. Thus, the rates of all metabolic processes have to be coordinated for this tightrope act of metabolic symmetry (steady state). Figure 3.2 also shows the linkage between energy usage and biosynthesis. The substance abbreviated as "ATP" is the chief carrier of chemical energy in the cell. Most frequently, when chemical change requires input of energy, ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is degraded to ADP (adenosine diphosphate). The sum total of the chemical changes in the cell equals the essence of life.


    Chemical reactions are nothing more than the movement of bonding electrons around and between atoms. These electrons hold groups of atoms in clusters called molecules. The fascinating property of matter is that these clusters behave very differently than their constituent atoms.4 For example, clusters of oxygen atoms and clusters of hydrogen atoms by themselves are gases. Hydrogen is very flammable, even explosive. But when an oxygen and two hydrogen atoms are combined into a cluster, water forms. The conversion of a mixture of oxygen gas and hydrogen gas to water is a chemical reaction.
    In chemical reactions, atoms and their bonding electrons leave an old cluster and join a new one. As a result of changes in their atomic compositions, the chemical properties of clusters change. By "chemical property" we mean the tendency of molecules to acquire or give up atoms.
    Why would atoms and their bonding electrons jump from one atomic cluster to another? This is equivalent to asking why chemical reactions occur at all. Chemists tell us that the driving force behind chemical changes is the intrinsic tendency of all matter to exist in the lowest possible state of energy. This is why balls roll downhill spontaneously, electricity flows from the negative to the positive pole, and hot objects tend to cool down to the temperature of their environment.
    Chemical reactions can be compared to a market transaction where molecules trade atoms in order to shed some of their energy content. Just as in business there are sellers and buyers, in chemical reactions there are atom clusters that can achieve lower energy states by rearranging or giving up some of their atoms. These are the "sellers". Other clusters — the "buyers" — receive new atoms, and their energy levels increase. The important consideration for such chemical transactions to occur is that when all the energy gains and losses are totaled, there should be a net lowering of the overall energy content of the system.
    Chemical changes take a finite amount of time. Some rearrangements are faster than others. Chemists have found that if the vibrations of atoms are speeded up by raising the temperature, the chemical change is more rapid. There are also helper agents — catalysts — which facilitate reactions. Remarkably, almost every chemical change in the cell has a facilitator catalyst — an "enzyme". Enzymes are very large protein molecules, often hundreds of times larger than the atomic groups they manage.


    The role of catalysts is the speeding up of chemical conversions. In the case of living matter, why are catalysts necessary? Why must there be an increase in reaction rate? If all chemical changes in the cell would slow down due to lack of catalysts, what would happen? The answer is: chaos. Without specific catalysts guiding molecules through precise paths of chemical changes, numerous "unauthorized" chemical side-reactions would occur. This is due to the propensity of substances to interact with each other in more than one way. Only those chemical changes which contribute to the economy of the whole cell are useful.
    This is a significant point. Individual chemical changes in the cell (even dozens or hundreds of them) have little utility, unless their end products belong in the closely knit network of substances needed by the cell. The meaning of each chemical reaction and of each reaction product is derived from the fact that the reaction products contribute to the functions of the living cell. All other chemical conversions are wasteful and detrimental to the cell.
    A reaction always runs its course, whether catalyzed or not, by producing a characteristic ratio of reaction products and starting materials. When this ratio is achieved, no further net chemical change happens under the conditions of the reaction, and the substances are said to be in a state of chemical equilibrium (Box 3.1).


In a typical chemical reaction between substances A and B, two new substances form, C and D:
A + B ®
C + D

At the beginning of the reaction there are only the starting substances A and B.

During the reaction the amounts of A and B diminish and the amounts of products C and D increase. The products C and D react to re-form A and B. This is the reverse reaction.

At the end of the reaction there will be a constant amount of all four substances A, B, C, and D, because forward and reverse reactions balance each other. This state is called chemical equilibrium.

    For every reaction there is an "equilibrium constant" Keq, a term which combines the characteristic ratios of reaction products and reactants at equilibrium. Reactions at equilibrium are of little use to the cell because it is the chemical changes that drive the phenomenon of life. In fact, when all of the reactions in the cell reach their equilibria, death occurs. This makes the roles of the enzymes paradoxical. They are required to keep the flow of materials on useful tracks preventing side-reactions, but the enzymes push the chemical conversions rapidly toward equilibria which, if achieved, doom the cell. To avoid disaster, the chemical conversions are organized into what amounts to "assembly lines" on the cell. The product of one reaction becomes the starting material for the next. This arrangement prevents the accumulation of products (Box 3.2).


Catalyst #1

Reaction #1:

Glucose + ATP ®
Glucose-6-phosphate + ADP

By itself, this reaction stops at equilibrium.
But a second reaction occurs in the cells:

Catalyst #2

Reaction #2:

Glucose-6-phosphate ®

uses up one of the products of the first reaction, preventing the formation of equilibrium. These two are the first two reactions in a ten-step biochemical pathway called "glycolysis".4

    In the hundreds of chemical assembly lines, also called "biochemical pathways", there are multiple chemical conversions. Some of these build larger and larger molecules, while other pathways degrade substances to smaller pieces. Degradation of energy-rich matter is coupled to the efficient capture of chemical energy. This energy drives the growth and movement of the cell. Figure 3.2 is an attempt to summarize the work of the metabolic paths in the interacting networks.
    The metabolic fabric of the cells is seamless; there are no loose ends. All biosynthetic paths lead to the production of more biomatter and growth, and all degradative processes result in the harness of useful chemical energy and in the secretion of waste. Each biochemical pathway has a single "rate limiting" step which governs the rate for output of that chemical "assembly line." The enzyme catalyzing this regulatory reaction is able to speed up, slow down, or even arrest the output of that pathway, depending on the amount of product already available to the cell. Thus, wasteful oversupply of metabolic components is prevented. This is one of the kinds of sensing mechanisms which monitor the composition of the intracellular environment. As excesses or shortages of biochemical intermediates develop, appropriate regulatory adjustments are made in order to preserve the "steady state" of the cell. In a well-functioning cell, the amounts of each of hundreds or thousands of substances remain close to constant during a steady flux of material through the system. This steady, non-equilibrium state of matter is an absolute prerequisite for the phenomenon of life.


    If a single reaction within a metabolic pathway were to reach equilibrium in the cell, it would constitute a metabolic block, because (by definition of what equilibrium is) there would be no net conversion of matter past that point. Some metabolic blocks would not be fatal when alternative pathways could compensate the cell. But when all the reactions in the cell reach their equilibria, life processes cease, and the cell dies. Such a state can be achieved in a bacterial cell such as E. coli, by using an organic solvent to poke holes in its membrane. When the membrane is opened the cell is no longer capable of generating energy (an intact membrane is essential for this process). The chemical conversions cease, and soon every reaction will reach its equilibrium. The difference between non-equilibrium and equilibrium is nothing less than the difference between life and death.5
    The equilibrium status of a single chemical reaction can be converted into a non-equilibrium state temporarily by either adding more reactants or by removing one or more reaction products. The non-equilibrium state will last only as long as one of these measures continues. The same considerations apply to biochemical chain reactions (pathways) that have reached equilibrium. The equilibrium of each pathway may be eliminated if it is provided with additional starting material and if the final product is removed. This concept is illustrated in Box 3.3.


Consider a pathway
A E1
B E2
C E3
D E4
E E5
F E6

at equilibrium. A through G are metabolites; E1 through E6 are enzymes.

The equilibrium constant for the pathway

Kpathway = *K1 *K2 *K3 *K4 *K5 *K6,

where K1 through K6 are the equilibrium constants of the individual reactions.

Simplification of this expression yields:

Kpathway = [G]/[A]

It is possible to undo the equilibrium status of this pathway by supplying more substance A and removing substance G. In the cell this would be possible only if the pathways supplying A and removing G were at non-equilibrium.

    Thus, if the non-equilibrium steady states of all reactions could be restored, the dead cells would live again. In theory this could be accomplished by restoring each of the hundreds of interconnected biochemical pathways to its non-equilibrium condition (Box 3.3). First any breach of the integrity of the cell's membranes would have to be repaired, and a continuous supply of starting substrates of the first reactions of every pathway would have to be supplied in order to launch all of the chemical processes, more or less simultaneously. Such a procedure would begin turning the metabolic wheels of the organisms, and it would live again.
    While we can transfer any substance across a cell membrane by "electroportation" (a short pulse of high voltage),6 the continuous delivery into cells of large numbers of different metabolites for which there are no built-in transport mechanisms is beyond our current technical capabilities. Herein lies the reason why we cannot reverse death on the cellular level.
    Closely akin to this is the problem of generating life from an inert collection of biomolecules. To accomplish this, one would need to bring all of the needed substances into a membrane-enclosed space (enzymes, substrates, genetic material, various subcellular organelles) and then create a state of non-equilibrium among the hundreds of substrates of the enzymes. The difficulty in accomplishing this rests with the propensity of enzymes to establish equilibrium rapidly among their substrates. Thus far it has not been possible to overcome this challenge even in the most sophisticated modern laboratory. What would be required here is to be able to manipulate selected molecules in the manner of "Maxwell's Demon."


    This theoretical creature occupied space between two interconnected compartments which were filled with gas molecules, and the demon could keep the slow-moving molecules in one compartment and send the fast-moving ones into the other. Such action would result in one compartment becoming warm and the other cold. In other words, Maxwell's Demon could take a system at equilibrium and manipulate it into a non-equilibrium state.
    Whether this feat can be accomplished in the future by scientists is not known. Manipulation of individual atoms and molecules is now becoming possible, using "atomic force" microscopy.7 It is certain, however, that a state of non-equilibrium cannot arise from an equilibrium state spontaneously. But this is precisely what would be required if a live cell were to emerge from a dead cell (Box 3.4).


  1. Appropriate types and quantity of biomolecules plus water (Table 2.1).
  2. The capacity to accomplish the metabolic and regulatory tasks, outlined in Table 2.2
  3. A steady state non-equilibrium status among the chemical reactions.

    The discussion of life in these three chapters emphasized both the complexity and the dynamics of the chemistry undergirding this amazing process. The minimum requirements for cellular life are summarized in Box 3.4. With these facts in the background we now turn to the current postulates of primordial abiogenesis that attempt to explain how life arose on Earth from nonliving matter.


  1. Living cells are made from nonliving components.
  2. The phenomenon of life is based on continuous chemical conversions.
  3. Individual chemical reactions always reach their end points (equilibrium) and come to a stop.
  4. In living cells, chemical reactions are linked into chains that prevent individual reactions from reaching equilibrium and stopping.
  5. The difference between live and dead cells is the equilibrium or non-equilibrium status of the chain reactions.
  6. At the present time, even with our considerable chemical knowledge, we cannot restore dead cells back to life.



  1. Lehninger AL, Nelson DL, Cox MM. 1993. Principles of biochemistry. Second ed. NY: Worth Publishers, p 3.
  2. Equilibrium does not have to be a state of stagnation. There can be many chemical reactions occurring in such a system, the only requirement is that there will be no net chemical change. In other words, in a state of equilibrium, the various chemical changes cancel each other.
  3. The original Figure 3.1 was drawn by Mrs. Anita Churches.
  4. Timberlake KC. 1999. Chemistry: an introduction to general, organic and biological chemistry. Seventh ed. Menlo Park, CA and NY: Addison-Wesley Longman, Inc.
  5. Becker WM. 1977. Energy and the living cell. Philadelphia and NY: J.B. Lippincott Co., p 32.
  6. Maniatis T, Sambrook J, Fritsch EF. 1989. Molecular cloning: a laboratory manual. Second ed. 3 vols. NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
  7. Mathews CK, Van Holde KE. 1996. Biochemistry. Second ed. Menlo Park, CA and NY: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Co., p 23.



"Primordial soup again?"
caveman to wife in a Gary Larson cartoon

"I have made it my rule not to read this literature on prebiotic evolution until someone comes up with a recipe that says 'Do this and do that, and in three months things will crawl in there'".
        Max Delbruck1

    The explosive increase in understanding living matter directs our attention forward, toward the utilization of this great body of knowledge for curing mankind's illnesses. At times, though, scientists glance backwards to gain a perspective on the present, and to ask, "How did this rich ecosystem of Earth come into existence?" The technical details of the answer vary from year to year, but the big picture has not changed for many decades. It is basically as follows.
    The Earth formed from a spinning mass of gaseous matter — the "solar nebula" — by a process of accretion. Once this primitive, lifeless planet cooled down it was largely covered by an ocean. Its atmosphere contained nitrogen and carbon-containing substances, but was devoid of oxygen. Then a process called chemical evolution began on this primordial Earth. It resulted in the emergence of the first living cell and initiated biological evolution.
    A recent text of biochemistry states these concepts succinctly:

The origin of life probably occurred in three overlapping phases: Phase I, chemical evolution, involved the non-instructed synthesis of biological macromolecules. In phase II, biological macromolecules self-organized into systems that could reproduce. In phase III, organisms evolved from simple genetic systems to complex multicellular organisms.2

    Undergirding this scenario of life's origin is an unstated, but very firm, conviction that under conditions where living organisms can exist, nature will bring life into existence. This notion arises from two indisputable facts: 1) on planet Earth conditions are favorable for life, and 2) our planet is teeming with a multitude of living organisms. Despite the circularity of this argument, if one a priori discounts the possible existence of a supernatural Creator, all that remain are naturalistic scenarios for the origin of life.3 What follows here is a look at laboratory experiments and theoretical considerations that have been produced in support of evolutionary models.
    Scientists are at their best when they study matter under well-defined conditions. While it is true that the time scope of chemical evolutionary postulates covers thousands or even millions of years (time segments unavailable for individuals), the only function of time in these postulates is to increase the number of opportunities for interaction between substances. Scientists can accomplish this in the laboratory by various means that compress the time scale of the chemical evolutionary events to manageable size.
    We ought to be thankful for the efforts of stalwart chemists who have dared to test the validity of their postulates in the laboratory. Their work gives us a feel for the experimental challenges that confront chemical evolutionists. They are following standard practice in science, in contrast to some in a field of chemical evolution who appear content issuing theories, without a scintilla of experimental evidence.4
    During the 1960s and 1970s, considerable experimental work was done on the behavior of matter under postulated primordial conditions.5 These conditions were very diverse because a "primordial world" could be anything that was sterile and devoid of oxygen. The experiments were conceived to test the validity of the following theoretical transformation of matter on the primordial Earth:6

Stage 1 (early Earth atmosphere) ® Stage 2 (hot dilute soup) ® Stage 3 (polymerization) ® Stage 4 (protocell formation) ® Stage 5 (true cell formation).


    Reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide is the only potential source for the production of biologically relevant organic substances. The current atmosphere, which contains 20% oxygen, is very oxidizing. Under synthetic conditions with oxygen present, carbon dioxide yields only biologically irrelevant materials. Moreover, in the presence of oxygen biologically relevant substances degrade.
    Therefore it is axiomatic to any chemical evolutionary scenario that the primordial atmosphere was free of oxygen. Experiments with gaseous mixtures have varied from methane-ammonia-water (most reduced) to carbon dioxide-nitrogen-water (most oxidized).
    The classic experiments of Stanley L. Miller, in the laboratory of Harold C. Urey,7 circulated the gases methane, ammonia, and hydrogen in a closed system. The apparatus also included boiling a mixture of water and electrodes for spark discharge that simulated lightning. After a week, four of the twenty amino acids found in proteins were produced, along with other organic substances. Later this experiment was repeated using nitrogen and a trace amount of ammonia. With this gas combination, ten different amino acids were made along with other nonbiological amino acids and organic substances.
    The Miller experiment was modified by other investigators, who used heat, ultraviolet radiation, and acoustic shock waves in place of sparks as an energy source. Additional gases — such as ethane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, or hydrogen cyanide — were added. These efforts resulted in the production of most of the amino acids, except histidine, arginine and lysine.8
    The synthesis of adenine, one of two purine components of nucleic acids (DNA, RNA), was reported from high concentrations of hydrogen cyanide in the presence of large amounts of ammonia.9 Prebiotic scenarios that contain large concentrations of ammonia and hydrogen cyanide are difficult to postulate. Adenine can be formed from hydrogen cyanide, without ammonia, in the presence of sunlight.10 The production of guanine — the second purine — under prebiotic conditions is less well-studied. However, it is known that guanine can be produced by reacting one of the intermediates of adenine synthesis with cyanogen, a substance derived from hydrogen cyanide.11 The three pyrimidines needed for nucleic acid synthesis — uracil,12 cytosine13 and thymine — were synthesized by reacting selected substances (which could have been potentially available) under prebiotic conditions.
    Another important class of ingredients — sugars — could have been produced in a primordial environment by the reaction of formaldehyde with alkaline substances.15 Two types of sugars, ribose and 2-deoxyribose, are essential for building nucleic acids. These substances link up with purines or pyrimidines and a phosphate to form nucleotides, which are the building blocks of nucleic acids (Table 2.2). The chemical linkage between sugars and a purine or pyrimidine occurs with the loss of two hydrogen and an oxygen, the equivalent of water. This process may not appear improbable, but thus far it has not been possible to achieve in a simulated primordial environment.16
    In addition to amino acids, there has been successful laboratory synthesis of purines and sugars, short chain fatty acids, fatty alcohols and di- and tricarboxylic acids under simulated primordial earth conditions.17 These achievements supported the postulate that necessary organic substances were collected in a primitive ocean, forming a "primordial broth". Initially scientists estimated that about 3% of the primordial ocean by weight could have consisted of organic substances.18 This estimate was made before the realization that on a prebiotic earth several factors would reduce the amounts of organic matter in the ocean. The very sources of energy that created organic compounds would also destroy some. In addition, other chemical interactions including water's destructive effect would have diminished the amounts of organics in the primordial ocean by a factor of ten thousand less than originally proposed. This is the level we actually find today in the North Atlantic Ocean!19 There is no geological evidence available for the existence of a primordial soup either worldwide or in smaller locations.20
    Oxygen has been excluded from all prebiotic experiments, because its presence precludes the production of biologically useful substances. Yet no prebiotic scenario can rule out the presence of oxygen. High-energy ultraviolet light, which is now filtered out by a layer of ozone (a very reactive form of oxygen gas) high in the atmosphere, is capable of degrading water to oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen escapes from the atmosphere, whereas oxygen remains. On ultraviolet photographs of Earth taken from the Moon during the Apollo-16 mission, there is a large cloud of atomic hydrogen enveloping our planet, extending outward some 40,000 miles. The only conceivable source of this hydrogen is the extensive photodissociation of water vapor above the ozone layer.21
    Thus laboratory simulations of the primordial production of biomonomers leave substantial unresolved problems that in any other field of science would result in the dismissal of the underlying theory. In this case, however, the attitude is: "since we know that chemical evolution is true (we are here after all!), we just have to keep on looking for answers".
    An ingenious solution to a seemingly impossible predicament is the notion that many of the required biomonomers were delivered to Earth by interstellar dust, meteorites and comets.22 This mechanism provides, in theory, unlimited amounts of starting material for chemical evolution to proceed.


    Although there are some positive laboratory results showing how biomonomers may have arisen in a primordial setting, there is an almost complete meltdown in experimental efforts to show how biopolymers may be formed. If one stipulates the availability of an unlimited supply of primordial biomonomers, three major obstacles surface on the way toward producing proteins and nucleic acids. (The other two classes of biopolymers — polysaccharides and lipids — are not considered here, because they could be formed enzymatically if the correct proteins were available.)
    The obstacles to forming proteins and nucleic acids are:

  1. How do amino acids and nucleotides link up into proteins and nucleic acids in an aqueous environment, when the linkages involve the loss of water?
  2. In the process of joining biomonomers together, how are only the "left-handed" amino acids selected for proteins and the "right-handed" sugars for nucleic acids, when at the start there is an equal mixture of both?23
  3. How are the amino acids and nucleotides arranged in meaningful sequences?

    Our biotechnology is at such a level now that we can manufacture protein and nucleic-acid fragments at will in the laboratory. These processes involve chemical activation of the linkage groups of the building-block substances, meanwhile protecting the rest of the molecule from participating in the linkup. The joining of these modified building blocks occurs in the total absence of water.24 The order of amino acids and nucleotides is determined by the experimenter.
    Formation of a peptide bond (see Table 2.2) between two amino acids is not favored thermodynamically. [It has been calculated that if one started with a very concentrated solution of amino acids (a concentration of "one mole per liter"), it would be necessary to have a volume 1050 times the Earth, in order to form spontaneously a single protein molecule, 100 amino acids long25]!
    Therefore it is not reasonable to suppose that amino acids would ever link up into chains while in the primordial soup. Heating pure solutions of amino acids to 200°C for 6-7 hours has led to the formation of random protein-like polymers.26 But many of the peptide bonds between amino acids were unnatural in these "proteinoids", and the sequence of amino acids reflected the composition of the initial mixture. Moreover, no suggestion exists to explain how a catalytically active proteinoid could be reproduced. Most recently it was shown that up to six residues of the amino acid glycine could be linked under high pressure in a simulated thermal vent.27 The authors offer a reasonable theory that the chain elongation occurs through a cyclic intermediate (diketopiperazine). However, this mechanism implies that other amino acids may not be able to elongate, because their structures prevent the formation of this cyclic intermediate.
    Biomonomers (amino acids or nucleotides) may be linked to each other in the presence of a chemical condensing agent which traps the water molecules that are split out between the monomers. But in an aqueous environment these agents will interact preferentially with the large amount of water in the environment. Thus, condensing materials work only in nonaqueous environments.
    The other two grave difficulties with primordial polymer formation — the exclusive use of only "left-handed" or "right-handed" monomers for protein or nucleic-acid synthesis, and the source of information that resides in the sequences of biomonomers in proteins and nucleic acids — have not been satisfactorily addressed.
    The synthesis of either proteins or nucleic acids under prebiotic conditions has yet to be accomplished. These necessary processes can be considered the end of the chemical evolutionary road paved only in scattered patches with experimental results. If one wishes to proceed beyond, it is necessary to traverse on the rocky terrain which consists mostly of speculations.


    Using Zubay's terminology, it is envisioned that the first phase of chemical evolution consisted of the "non-instructed" phase,2 where the emphasis was on the synthesis of random polymers of either proteins or nucleic acids, or both. Current thinking is leaning toward a random synthesis of ribonucleic acid, because it was discovered recently that some ribonucleic acids have catalytic activity.28 This discovery led to the speculation that the first biopolymers had both catalytic and genetic capacities.
    The second phase of chemical evolution is the "instructional phase", where macromolecules would self-organize into autocatalytic systems. That is, self-replicating systems would form from mixtures of random RNA or protein molecules. Somehow such systems would be wrapped into protective membranes, forming "protocells", the precursors of true cells.
    Experimental models of protocells include coacervates (microscopic droplets) of proteins and nucleic acids,29 proteinaceous microspheres,30 and lipid vesicles.31 These structures have been synthesized in the laboratory from preformed biopolymers, or from protein-like substances that were obtained by heating pure amino acids at high temperatures. Without entering into detailed considerations of each, it can be said that none of these complexes manifest the essential qualities of living cells. They were aggregates of polymers, predictably held together by physical forces. As such, they represent experimental dead-ends, without any promise of shedding light on the mysteries of abiogenesis.
    But having come this far in our hypothetical journey on a primordial Earth, it seems a pity to stop. If self-replicating systems of proteins and nucleic acids could be found, could these serve as precursors to modern cells? Evolutionary theoreticians posit that the Darwinian "descent with modification", along with "survival of the fittest", concept of biological evolution may have been at work even during chemical evolution.32,33 Thus, through a process of continual modification, different biopolymers would have been formed, and those with useful properties would have been retained.
    There is an enormous amount of information stored in the structures of nucleic acids and proteins in modern cells. It has been estimated that one cubic micrometer (one thousand billionth of a cubic centimeter) of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) encodes 150 megabytes of information. This is more than an order of magnitude greater than the current CD-ROM optical storage density.34 The complete nucleotide sequence of the genetic material of Escherichia coli, printed in a standard book form, takes up about 1,100 pages. A similar effort for the human genome would fill one thousand volumes of 1,100 pages each.
    The rules of grammar define the correct spelling of words and the proper usage of each word in a sentence. They do not determine the choices of words. Similarly, although the rules of chemistry determine how biomonomers may be linked into polymers, they are silent on the order in which these should be linked so as to have biological significance.
    The question is, by what processes would self-replicating systems of proteins and nucleic acids select for and accumulate biologically valuable polymers? In abiotic systems no selection pressure exists in favor of biologically useful polymers! The potential usefulness of biopolymers is manifested only in living cells. In nonliving matter the biological potential of molecules is of no consequence. This point is generally ignored by chemical evolutionary theoreticians. A salient example is the "obcell" hypothesis by T. Cavalier-Smith. He proposes that in the prebiotic era, membrane-protein complexes known as "inside-out cells" (or "obcells") formed as precursors of true cells. These structures contained transport proteins, as well as nucleic-acid replication machinery and ribosomes,35 and somehow had the ability to harness light energy. He gives no indications whether his "obcell" is alive or dead.
    Albert Lehninger, however, clearly states that the hypothetical protocells should have been alive:

... the first structure possessing 'life' was not necessarily a modern cell, complete with a membrane, a chromosome, ribosomes, enzymes, a metabolism, and the property of self-replication. The minimum requirement is that it could potentially evolve into a complete cell.36

    If a cell possessed life, then its molecular components had to be in steady state non-equilibria. Such a state could be maintained only if the individual chemical reactions in the protocell were kept from reaching equilibrium. In modern cells this is accomplished by the linkages of chemical reactions into biochemical pathways and by coordinating the chemical activities of pathways through regulation of key enzymes. Since protocells were supposed to have risen from random encapsulation of compounds and their catalysts, it would follow that their chemical reactions were neither linked into pathways nor regulated. Thus, chemical reactions in protocells would have been expected to reach equilibria some time after encapsulation, resulting in dead protocells.
    These considerations apply to all postulates of chemical evolution, regardless whether they approach modern life from the inorganic37 or from the organic world,4 whether the first postulated biopolymers were RNA38 or proteins,30 and whether life supposedly evolved on this planet or somewhere in outer space.


  1. Theories about the abiotic origins of life have been tested extensively in the laboratory.
  2. The feasibility of abiotic synthesis of many biomonomers in simulated primordial settings has been demonstrated.
  3. Simulated primordial syntheses of functional biopolymers have been unsuccessful.
  4. It has not been possible to show, even in theory, how living matter may arise from hypothetical "protocells".



  1. Delbruck M. 1986. Mind from matter? Palo Alto, CA: Blackwell Scientific Publications, p 31.
  2. Zubay GL, Parson WW, Vance DE. 1995. Principles of biochemistry. Dubuque, IA; Melbourne, Australia: Wm. C. Brown Publishers.
  3. A third logical option is "panspermia", the extraterrestrial origin of life. This hypothesis leaves the ultimate origin-of-life question unsolved. It does intimate that life evolved on another planet. As such, this option admits to the difficulty of postulating terrestrial abiogenesis.
  4. A salient example of this practice is the publication of G. Wächtershäuser's monograph on two-dimensional chemical evolution: 1988. Before enzymes and templates: theory of surface metabolism. Microbiological Reviews 42:452-484.
  5. A good summary can be found in: Miller SL, Orgel LE. 1974. The origins of life on the Earth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  6. Thaxton CB, Bradley WL, Olsen RL. 1984. The mystery of life's origin: reassessing current theories. NY: Philosophical Library, p 15.
  7. Miller SL. 1953. A production of amino acids under possible primitive earth conditions. Science 117:528-529.
  8. Reference 5, p 83-102, offers a good summary of this work.
  9. Oro J, Kimball AP. 1961. Synthesis of purines under possible primitive earth conditions. I. Adenine from hydrogen cyanide. Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics 94:217-227.
  10. Reference 5, p 105.
  11. Reference 5, p 107.
  12. Fox SW, Harada K. 1961. Synthesis of uracil under conditions of a thermal model of prebiological chemistry. Science 133:1923-1924.
  13. Sanchez RA, Ferris JP, Orgel LE. 1966. Cyanoacetylene in prebiotic synthesis. Science 154:784-785.
  14. Stephen-Sherwood E, Oro J, Kimball AP. 1971. Thymine: a possible prebiotic synthesis. Science 173:446-447.
  15. Butlerow A. 1861. Bildung einer zuckerartigen Substanz durch Synthese. Annalen 120:295-298.
  16. Reference 5, p 112-115.
  17. Miller SL. 1987. Which organic compounds could have occurred on the prebiotic earth? Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 52:17-27.
  18. Calvin M. 1969. Chemical evolution. NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, p 258.
  19. (a) Dose K. 1974. In: Dose K, Fox SW, Deborin GA, Pavlovskaya TE, editors. Origin of life and evolutionary biochemistry. NY: Plenum Press, p 69; (b) Pocklington R. 1971. Free amino-acids dissolved in North Atlantic Ocean waters. Nature 230:374-375.
  20. Brooks J, Shaw G. 1973. Origins and development of living systems. NY and London: Academic Press.
  21. News Release #30-72-7 (1972) from the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington DC.
  22. Orgel LE. 1994. The origin of life on the earth. Scientific American 271(4):76-83.
  23. All known prebiotic production of amino acids and sugars results in 50-50 mixtures of "right-handed" and "left-handed" products. This is because both types of substances contain one or more asymmetric centers, each of which permits two different spatial arrangements of atoms. "Right-handed" and "left-handed" versions of these substances are mirror images of each other with different chemical properties.
  24. Mathews CK, Van Holde KE. 1996. Biochemistry. Second ed. Menlo Park, CA; Reading, MA: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Co., p 127, 163.
  25. Dixon M, Webb FC. 1958. The enzymes. NY and San Francisco: Academic Press, p 667.
  26. Fox SW, Dose K. 1977. Molecular evolution and the origins of life. Second ed. NY: Marcel Dekker Publishing Co.
  27. Imai E-I, Honda H, Hatori K, Brack A, Matsuno K. 1999. Elongation of oligopeptides in a simulated submarine hydrothermal system. Science 283:831-833.
  28. (a) Kruger K, Grabowski PJ, Zaug AJ, Sands J, Gottshling DE, Cech TR. 1982. Self-splicing RNA: autoexcision and autocyclization of the ribosomal RNA intervening sequence of Tetrahymena. Cell 31:147-157; (b) Guerrir-Tkada C, Gardiner K, March T, Pace N, Altman S. 1983. The RNA moiety of ribonuclease P is the catalytic subunit of the enzyme. Cell 35:849-857.
  29. De Jong HGB. 1932. Die Koazervation und ihre Bedeutung für Biologie. Protoplasma 15:110-173.
  30. Fox SW, Harada K, Krampitz G, Mueller G. 1970. Chemical origins of cells. Chemical and Engineering News 48(26):80-94.
  31. Deamer DW, Oro J. 1980. Role of lipids in prebiotic structures. Biosystems 12:167-175.
  32. Kramer FR, Mills DR, Cole PE, Nishihara T, Spiegelman S. 1974. Evolution in vitro: sequence and phenotype of a mutant RNA resistant to ethidium bromide. Journal of Molecular Biology 89:719-736.
  33. Eigen M, Gardiner P, Schuster P, Winkler-Oswatitsh R. 1981. The origin of genetic information. Scientific American 244(4):88-92, 96, et passim.
  34. Rasko I, Downes CS. 1995. Genes in medicine. London, Glasgow, and NY: Chapman and Hall, p 12.
  35. Cavalier-Smith T. 1987. Evolution of catalytic function. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, LII. NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, p 805.
  36. Lefininger AL. 1975. Biochemistry: the molecular basis of cell structure and formation. Second ed. NY: Worth Publishing Inc., p 1045.
  37. Cairns-Smith AG. 1985. Seven clues to the origins of life. Cambridge and NY: Cambridge University Press.
  38. Gesteland RF, Atkins JF, editors. 1993. The RNA world. NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.



Question: When is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?
Answer: When one buys a doughnut.

    As a child I routinely destroyed my mechanical toys: windup airplanes, automobiles, railroad engines, many of which emitted sparks and sounds, and moved. I just had to see what was inside these marvelous devices. After peeling away the thin layers of metal, I was invariably confronted with jumbles of springs, gears and many unrecognizable objects. My toys lay in ruin, and I was no wiser.
    Many useful objects lose their function when they are dismantled. This is true of cars, radios, airplanes, refrigerators, pianos and essentially all manufactured goods. Obviously, appliances function only when completely assembled. The creation of these devices requires planning and execution. Piling microchips, capacitors and resistors into a heap usually yields only a garbage dump instead of some useful electronic equipment.


    The world is made from approximately one hundred different elements, such as carbon, iron and oxygen. The differences among elements are due to the number and arrangement of the protons and neutrons in the nucleus, and electrons in the outer regions of the atom. Although the properties of individual electrons are identical in every element, their differing combinations give a variety of chemical properties to the elements. But, as elements combine to form compounds, their unique properties frequently give way to new characteristics. For instance, inert white table salt emerges from combining the greenish corrosive gas chlorine with the soft metallic, highly reactive sodium.
    Linking hundreds of left-handed amino acids into polypeptide chains results in a most impressive variety of proteins. Thousands of different proteins function as molecular machines, each promoting a unique chemical change. Other proteins support biological structures, forming such diverse substances as tooth dentin or muscle fibers.
    Living matter consists of a mix of molecular machines that propel synchronized chain reactions. These enable life processes to occur in the cells. In multicellular organisms the work of one cell complements others. Living organisms interact in various ecosystems to form the biosphere that covers the globe. The Earth receives its energy supply from the sun, and solar energy drives most biological systems directly or indirectly. When the lowly E. coli utilizes the energy of glucose molecules, this energy originates from an atomic furnace, millions of degrees hot, some 93 million miles away.
    The layers of our reality are successively more complex domains (Figure 5.1). A logical way to account for the appearance of new functions at each level of increased complexity is to suppose that the Universe is here by design. Living organisms fit remarkably well into this hierarchical order of reality. It is tempting to adopt a "biocentric" view which would propose that reality was designed for the sake of living organisms.

FIGURE 5.1. Reality is organized into increased levels of complexity.

Energy ————
Subatomic particles Stabilization of energy
Atoms Shape, substance, chemical properties
Molecules Novel chemical properties
Cells Life
Organs Specialized tasks needed by multicellular organisms
Organisms Complex life forms
Ecosystems Localized interaction among life forms
Biosphere of Earth Global interaction among life forms
Solar System (relationships are not clear)


(relationships are not clear)

    We attempted to show that living matter cannot possibly spring into existence spontaneously under any circumstance. This is not an argument from ignorance. Theoretically we know what would be required for living processes to commence. Chemical evolution requires random processes to accomplish that which we are unable to do in the laboratory! Since there are no selection processes to favor components of a "future" biological system, any appeal to random processes, even if an infinite amount of time were available, is futile.
    As matters stand, rejection of the concept of the Creator leaves the naturalistic scientist with the alternative of not knowing where life came from. Usually scientists are comfortable living with uncertainty. In fact, curiosity of the unknown is a chief motivator of scientists. When research uncovers an explanation for a scientific problem, the scientist frequently moves to another area of work, looking for new challenges.
    But the question of life's origin is not just another scientific problem. It undergirds all other human enterprise. If we do not know how life originated, we do not know whether there is a purpose to existence, or whether we are all just participating in an interesting fluke of nature. While scientists have a high tolerance for the unknown, they have low tolerance for meaninglessness. Science is, after all, foremost a search for meaning in nature. It would seem incongruent that so much meaning can be found in nature at the levels on which scientists operate, but the sum total of existence turns out to be meaningless!
    Perhaps it is insulting to designate as meaningless the faith of those who believe in the evolution of matter from gaseous nebulae into highly structured biological entities. These evolutionists are awed by the sophistication seen in the biological world and continue to be challenged to gain a better understanding of it. They also take comfort in the apparent kinship between different forms of living matter, and they work diligently toward understanding their phylogenetic relationships. Perhaps it is more accurate to recognize naturalistic scientists as worshipers of nature, modern descendants of the worshipers of objects and of natural manifestations of ancient times.
    For these students of nature, science represents rational, logical thinking; and the notion of Supernatural represents the opposite — irrationality, magic and a return to the pre-scientific age. Indeed, much intellectual mischief has been committed in the past under the guise of religion. However, as was seen in the previous discussion, the phenomenon of life on Earth cannot be convincingly explained without invoking the work of a supernatural Creator. The necessity of a Creator is not a plea for a God of the gaps. It is our understanding of how living matter functions that drives the argument for not only a Designer but for also an Implementor who can fashion biomolecules into living matter. This view suggests that the laws of nature have been ordained by the Creator to sustain an orderly Universe. These laws are to be discovered and utilized by us. Belief in a supernatural Creator stimulates students of nature to discover the Creator's thoughts. Contrary to the pronouncements of some1 that biology is meaningless without evolution, the study of nature draws the student closer to its Author. For the creationist, religion and science are not mutually exclusive domains. Rather, they are different avenues toward the same Source.


  1. Everyday experience teaches us that manufactured goods with new functions are made from pre-designed components.
  2. Successively more complex levels of our reality with new functions are based on the interactions of simpler forms of matter. This suggests that our complex reality is designed.



  1. Dobzhansky T. 1973. Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher 35(3):125-129.



This collage represents a variety of plant and animal life. The layout was created by Clyde L. Webster, who provided all but two of the photographs. The remaining two photographs were provided by Katherine Ching.

© 1998

All contents copyright Geoscience Research Institute. All rights reserved.
Send comments and questions to

| Home | News |
| About Us | Contact Us |