Origin of Life

1. Have scientists created life?[1]

No. Scientists can produce some of the simpler chemicals of living cells, [2] but they have not been able to combine them to produce a living cell. They have learned how to synthesize a bacterial genome based on already working natural genes and natural genome architecture, and then insert it into an already living bacterium from which the natural genome has been removed, producing what has been called a “synthetic cell.” [3] We do not currently possess the technology to synthesize an entire living cell and no technology to do so appears imminent. At this time, scientists cannot bring dead cells back to life, even though the needed systems and chemicals are all present in approximately the correct locations as in living cells. If scientists ever do synthesize an entire living cell, this would not support the theory that life can arise spontaneously (abiogenesis). Instead, it would show that cells could arise by actions of an intelligent designer, in this case the scientists, if they were able to achieve such an incredible feat.

2. What is the meaning of the famous “Miller-Urey Experiment,” which produced amino acids from a simulated primordial atmosphere?

Many biology textbooks include reference to an experiment reported in 1954, in which Stanley Miller, a student of Harold Urey, synthesized some amino acids in an experiment designed to simulate conditions on a lifeless Earth. Miller passed an electrical spark through a mixture of water vapor, methane, ammonia and hydrogen, thought to represent the earth’s atmosphere before there was any life. He then passed the mixture through a condenser to cool it so it could be easily collected. After two weeks of this treatment, Miller found that the experiment had produced at least 11 of the 20 amino acids needed for life. Later examination of the material revealed that the experiment had actually produced more than 20 different kinds of amino acids. Other experimenters were able to synthesize additional kinds of molecules by varying the composition of the “atmosphere.” These experiments have been promoted as showing that the molecular “building blocks” (amino acids, sugars, purines, pyrimidines, etc) of life could be produced naturally, with the suggestion this process might eventually result in abiogenesis – the naturalistic production of a living cell.

Although the Miller-Urey experiment was greeted with great enthusiasm by materialists, it has not led any further in attempts to explain the origin of life through abiogenesis. The chemical conditions needed for some of the necessary molecules are incompatible with those needed for other molecular building blocks, and there seems no way to avoid contamination and cross-reaction of the various compounds produced. In Miller’s experiment, less than twenty percent of the carbon molecules ended up in compounds of potential use to a cell. Most of the carbon atoms ended up in a sticky asphalt-like mixture of no use in abiogenesis. The fact that this and similar experiments remain featured in textbooks is a reminder of how little there is to offer in support of the theory of abiogenesis.

3. Could life begin by chance in a "primordial soup"?

No. [4] The idea of a “primordial soup” is that organic molecules might be produced in the atmosphere and collect in the ocean, eventually forming an organic-rich “primordial soup.” However, any hypothesized “primordial soup” would not provide the chemical conditions necessary for life to originate. [5] Several severe problems are faced by all such speculated scenarios for abiogenesis. One of these is the problem of chemical contamination, in which the products of the reaction react with other molecules to produce unwanted products. A second problem is the need for molecules with a specific type of structure, called chirality. Many organic molecules occur naturally in two forms, often called “left-handed” and “right-handed.” Living cells use only one of these forms, but both of them occur in equal amounts in simulated abiogenesis experiments. The two forms interfere with each other in attempts to synthesize biomolecules. Another problem is the effect of water in breaking apart (hydrolyzing) the chemical bonds that hold the smaller building blocks together in a larger molecule (biopolymer). This is especially significant for all theories of a “primordial soup” because the “soup” is largely composed of water. A fourth problem is the need for the simultaneous presence of complex systems of interacting chemical reactions to be present. Living cells separate incompatible chemical reactions in different compartments, using membranes to isolate them from each other. This is an unrealistic condition in any hypothesized ocean. To make matters worse, the chemical reactions must proceed in non-equilibrium fashion. Living cells require that chemical reactions not go to equilibrium, or the cell will die. Another problem is the need for precisely specified information in the arrangement of the building blocks to produce functional sequences. Random sequences of building blocks do not make functional proteins or other biopolymers. The final problem listed here is that there is no geological evidence that a primordial soup ever existed. For these and other reasons, most scientists are skeptical that life could have arisen in the hypothesized “primordial soup.”

4. Evaluate the theory that life began on mineral or clay surfaces in the ocean, perhaps around hydrothermal vents.

Different conjectures have been proposed regarding the development of life on clay or mineral surfaces. Certain interesting chemical reactions occur on iron sulfide and chemically similar surfaces. [6] However, it is not at all clear or convincing how life could arise in such circumstances. [7] Any chemical reaction that might be postulated to produce the materials needed for life still faces the problem of chemical equilibrium, in which production ceases because the chemical reactions go backwards as rapidly as they go forwards. Further, even if biological macromolecules were produced, random molecules do not function as the highly specified molecules do in living things. Worse, even if the necessary chemicals were present, the presence of all the molecules necessary for life does not result in the complex set of chemical disequilibria found in living things, let alone an actual living cell.

Hydrothermal vents have been proposed as possible sites for the origin of life, due to the presence of heat and chemically active molecules, and the theoretical potential for proton gradients. [8] However, hydrothermal vents present a serious problem for all theories of the origin of life. One issue relates to the extreme heat of the vent which would destroy organic molecules essential for life or living organisms themselves as the water carried them through the vent. [9] It is estimated that the entire volume of the ocean would pass through hydrothermal vents every 10 million years, possibly limiting the time available for abiogenesis.

5. How have developments in chaos theory and emergent properties affected our understanding of the origin of life problem?

Mathematicians use the term “chaos” to represent complex systems in which a slight change in initial conditions produces a large, unpredictable change in the final outcome. At one time, some proposals were made that such systems might explain the origin or behavior of living systems. However, it soon became apparent that chaotic systems, although not predictable, are fully deterministic. Once the initial conditions are set, the outcome is determined. Chaotic systems do not allow for flexibility of outcomes, and they do not help solve the problems of the origin of life.

Complex systems may generate properties that do not result from the properties of any of the components of the system, but rather are new, “emergent” properties that result from the combination of components. This observation has generated a great deal of discussion and speculation, but these have not changed the nature of the problem. Most of the work has been done with computer programs, which have not revealed anything about the origins of proteins, nucleic acids, or living cells. [10]

In the end, proteins, nucleic acids and other macromolecules essential to life are not produced in the absence of life. Even those molecules produced in laboratories in which complex machinery and techniques are employed are the result the activities of intelligent life. In other words, in our experience, the chemical components of living cells are either produced by scientists and involve intelligent design, or are produced inside already living things (which themselves appear to be produced by intelligent design).

6. Has life been found on Mars?

Life has not been found on Mars. There has been abundant speculation about life on Mars, especially since it appears there may be water there. [11] However, contrary to previous reports, it also appears there is no methane on Mars. [12] Presence of methane is consistent with the presence of life, but would not necessarily prove its presence. Absence of methane does not disprove the presence of life, but it is one more indicator of life that appears to be absent on Mars. In the past, there were reports of possible life on Mars, based on certain minerals found on an Antarctic meteorite. [13] However, the claim that the meteorite had features produced by living organisms has been rejected by most scientists. [14] Although the search continues for evidence of life on Mars, to date there is nothing to indicate it is present. If life were found on Mars, this would not necessarily support the idea that it arose spontaneously. Instead, it would raise questions about how life came to be on two planets rather than one. The possibility of transport of bacteria from Earth to Mars on meteorites has already been proposed. [15]

7. What unsolved problems about the origin of life are of greatest interest?

What is the nature of the source of the intelligence behind living things and the rest of the creation? How do we really define the difference between living and non-living things?

[1] For additional information see Javor, G. Where did life come from? In Gibson, LJ and Rasi, HM, eds., Understanding Creation, Nampa, ID: Pacific Press, 101-111.

[2] The famous Miller-Urey experiment was the first to produce amino acids under simulated prebiotic circumstances, but numerous problems have prevented substantial progress in demonstrating abiogenesis.

[3] Gibson, DG., et al., and JC Ventner. 2010. Creation of a bacterial cell controlled by a chemically synthesized genome. Science 329 (2 July):52-56.

[4] An excellent book on this is Meyer, SC. 2009. Signature in the Cell. New York, NY: HarperOne.

[5] Lane, N. et al. 2010. How did LUCA make a living? Chemiosmosis in the origin of life. Bioessays 32:271-280.

[6] Hazen, RM and DA Sverjensky. 2010. Mineral surfaces, geochemical complexities, and the origins of life. Cold Springs Harbor Perspectives in Biology 2010;2:1002162.

[7] For a review of problems of origin of life theories, see Meyer, SC. 2009. Signature in the Cell. New York: NY: HarperOne, 150-172.

[8] Lane, N, JF Allen, W Martin. 2010. How did LUCA make a living? Chemiosmosis in the origin of life. Bioessays 32:271-280.

[9] (a) Miller SL, Bada JL. 1988. Submarine hot springs and the origin of life. Nature 334:609-611; (b) Moulton V, Gardner PP, Pointon RF, Creamer LK, Jameson GB, Penny D. 2000. RNA folding argues against a hot-start origin of life. Journal of Molecular Evolution 51:416-421.

[10] See: (a) Horgan J. 1995. From complexity to perplexity. Scientific American 272(1):104-109; (b) Yockey HP. 1992. Information Theory and Molecular Biology. Cambridge and NY: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Leshin, LA et al. Volatile, isotope, and organic analysis of Martian fines with the Mars Curiosity rover. Science 2013, 341:1238937; DOI 10.1126/science.1238937

[12] Webster, CR, et al. 2013. Low upper limit to methane abundance on Mars. Science (19 September), DOI 10.1126/science.1242902.

[13] McKay DS, et al. 1996. Search for past life on Mars: possible relic biogenic activity in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Science 273:924-930.

[14] See: (a) Bradley JP, Harvey RP, McSween HY. 1997. No "nanofossils" in Martian meteorite. Nature 390:454; b) Yockey HP. 1997. Life on Mars? Did it come from Earth? Origins and Design 18(1):10-15; (c) Jull AJT, Courtney C, Jeffrey DA, Beck JW. 1998. Isotopic evidence for a terrestrial source of organic compounds found in Martian meteorites Allan Hills 84001 and Elephant Morain 79001. Science 279:366-369; (d) Kerr RA. 1998. Requiem for life on Mars? Support for microbes fades. Science 282:1398-1400.

[15] Ross, H. 1995. The Creator and the Cosmos. Revised edition. Colorado Springs, CO:NavPress, 154-155.