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Origin of Life Studies....

 | Basic concepts | Introduction  | recent headlines |  
for the younger student!  


The question of the origin of life has long held high priority in the search for understanding of the natural world. However, the "when," the "what" and the "how" continue to be elusive.  It is notable that Charles Darwin was very hesitant to speak about the origin of life in the period after his Origin of Species (1859). At one early
stage he spoke of a creator of the first life, later he wrote about events occurring in a pond somewhere.
In his autobiography he recalled that at the time of writing the Origin
of Species
 the conclusion was strong in his mind of the existence of God due to: 

  .."the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this  immense and wonderful universe,      including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind  chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist."[1]

He would later retreat from this position. However, historian James Moore argues:

   Darwin's understanding of nature never departed from a theological point of view. Always, I
   believe, until his dying day, at least half of him believed in God".


In the physical sciences, abiogenesis  is the study of how life on Earth might have emerged from non-life (perhaps) sometime between 3.9 and 4.1 billion years ago. This topic also includes theories and speculations regarding  the extra-planetary (extra-terrestrial) origin of life.

Origin of life studies is a limited field of research despite its impact on biology and human understanding of the natural world. Progress in this field is generally slow and sporadic, though it occasionally hits the "evening news" due to the eminence of the question being investigated. One reason for the slow rate of progress is the difficulty in obtaining funding for this type of research in this area, since practical commercial applications are difficult to foresee. Another is the complexity of the processes
involved in even the simple examples of living matter.


A few facts have given insight into the conditions from which life may have emerged, but the mechanisms by which non-life became life are still unknown. Some would say that this is an example of Intelligent Design - others continue to do research. This field is often associated with NASA projects.Some anti-science folk trumpet the lack of progress in this area as an example of the llimits of science.


Recent Headlines 

Searching for the origins of life... and our future. Harvard Professor Dimitar Sasselov on building a credible picture of alien life. more


What do we know about the origin of life?

photo credit: NASA / Jenny Mottar

Famous scientists love to speculate about the ultimate questions of life in our universe.  According to quantum physicist Steven Weinberg, “The final laws of nature, the book of rules that govern all natural phenomena are utterly impersonal and quite without any special role for life.”  The renowned paleontologist Steven Jay Gould claimed that “any replay would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.”  Other scientists though, noting the remarkable fine-tuning of our universe, have come to different conclusions: “Far from . . . → Read More: What do we know about the origin of life?


Earth-bound asteroids carried ever-evolving, life-starting organic compounds

 Detailed analysis of the most pristine meteorite ever recovered shows that the composition of the organic compounds it carried changed during the early years of the solar system. Those changed organics were preserved through billions of years in outer space before the meteorite crashed to Earth.... Eurek Alert


Harold Morowitz,  The Origin of Life: A case is made for the descent of electrons,
 Morowitz postulates that the first step toward the origin of life was the spontaneous condensation of amphiphilic molecules to form vesicles (or protocells). This hypothesis provides a framework for reexamining the emergence of cellularity. Morowitz further proposes that core metabolic processes have not changed for some 3.8 billion years, so we can use a study of modern biochemistry to advance our knowledge about the chemical processes of the earliest protocells. Morowitz views origin of life issues from the perspective of certain constructs in the philosophy of science that provide guideposts to formulating and assessing hypotheses. This book presents a unique discussion among origin-of-life books on the relation between science and epistemology on the difficult problem of learning about the very distant past.


               Trichoplax. (Credit: Ana Signorovitch/Yale)
 Science Daily, September 3, 2008.

Molecular and evolutionary biologists have produced the full genome sequence of Trichoplax, one of nature's most primitive multicellular organisms, providing a new insight into the evolution of all higher animals. The findings reported in the August 21 online edition of the journal Nature show that while Trichoplax has one of the smallest nuclear genomes found in a multi-cellular creature, it contains signature sequences for gene regulation found in more complex animals and humans. Further, it defines Trichoplax as a branching point of animal evolution.

  • diamonds

    Diamonds May Have Been Life's Best Friend On Primordial Earth  Science Daily, July 30, 2008.

    Diamonds may have been life's best friend. Billions of years ago, the surface of these gems may have provided just the right conditions to foster the chemical reactions believed to have given rise to ...

    Synthetic Bacterial Genome: Venter Institute Scientists Create First Synthetic Bacterial Genome January 24, 2008.

    A team of 17 researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) has created the largest man-made DNA structure by synthesizing and assembling the 582,970 base pair genome of a bacterium, Mycoplasma genitalium JCVI-1.0. This work, published online today in the journal Science by Dan Gibson, Ph.D., et al, is the second of three key steps toward the team�s goal of creating a fully synthetic organism. In the next step, which is ongoing at the JCVI, the team will attempt to create a living bacterial cell based entirely on the synthetically made genome.

  • comet imageDid Life Begin In Space? New Evidence From Comets (Aug. 14, 2007) New evidence about the interiors of comets suggests it is overwhelmingly likely that life began in space, according to scientists at Cardiff.

    How Life Originated from Simple Molecules (March 21, 2007) Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have determined the three-dimensional structure of an RNA enzyme, or "ribozyme," that carries out a fundamental reaction required to make new RNA molecules. Their results provide insight into what may have been the first self-replicating molecule to arise billions of years ago on the evolutionary path toward the emergence of life. In all forms of life known today, the synthesis of DNA and RNA molecules is carried out by enzymes made of proteins. The instructions for making those proteins are contained in genes made of DNA or RNA (nucleic acids). The circularity of this process poses a challenge for theories about the origins of life. "Which came first, nucleic acids or proteins? This question once seemed an intractable paradox, but with the discovery of ribozymes, it is now possible to imagine a prebiotic 'RNA World' in which self-replicating ribozymes accomplished both tasks," said William Scott, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at
    UC Santa Cruz.


    Small Molecule Interactions Were Central To The Origin Of Life (May 16, 2006) -- An important new paper argues against the widely held theory that the origin of life began with the spontaneous appearance of a large, replicating molecule such as RNA. Instead, Robert Shapiro (NYU) ...  

    Methane-belching Bugs Inspire A New Theory Of The Origin Of Life On Earth (May 12, 2006) -- Scientists at Penn State have discovered a previously unknown biochemical process that has led to their development of a fundamental new theory of the origin of life on Earth. The new theory ...


    These headlines attest to the fact the quest for the origin of the first living matter is still important. As scientific understanding has changed, the ways in which this quest has been framed have taken new directions. In each generation the approach to the subject has been influenced by contemporary theories of biology, chemistry and physics, the latest tools and techniques, and the religious and political culture of the times. Progress is slow and each public announcement receives much attention.


    The question of the origin of life has a long and controversial history. Many readers will come with a point of view - perhaps looking for material to bolster their convictions. Others will come with questions as they seek to come to an understanding that fits their theological position. 


    The ASA takes seriously the work of scientists and biblical scholars.  It is all too easy for the Christian to downplay the work of scientists or for scientists to dismiss Christians as out of touch with reality. This page offers insights from various points of view rather than the answer to this intriguing subject.

    For the younger student!

        Try this experiment in the warm spring or summer months:
    1. Take a ripe banana or other soft fruit, cut it in half, and place it in an open glass jar.
    2. Put the jar (still open) with the fruit in it in an open window for a couple of days.
    3. Place a cap on the jar and leave it in a warm (not hot) area.
    4. Observe what happens to the fruit. In a few days, you should have some "spontaneously generated" flies in the jar! 


    Why is  this experiment poorly designed to provide evidence for "spontaneous generation.'?


    Basic Concepts   


    While all agree that the origin of the first life on earth is a mystery rooted in speculation and /or religious conviction, three lines of investigation have emerged over the years to bolster the probability that such an event naturally occurred.  


    • The oldest approach - spontaneous generation -  sought to demonstrate "contemporary examples" of living matter emerging from inorganic matter or in new forms from living material. The late 19th Century British scientist Henry C. Bastian was the last to seriously support this notion.


    • A second approach currently important has sought to establish chemical and physical environments on the earth which could produce life and plausible reaction sequences which lead to living material. The classical paper of Stanley Miller (1953) demonstrated that some amino acids can be chemically produced from ammonia, water and methane in an electrical discharge.  
    • An allied branch of research, panspermia (or exogenesis) seeks to discover evidence that life on earth came originally from an extraterrestrial body which had an environment more favorable to the origin of life than that of the early Earth.


    •  A third  approach (little explored) seeks to synthesize living matter from smaller non-living organic molecules. 

    Today, an international set of research groups actively pursues various scenarios leading to a self-replicating cell.  Fame and fortune await the individual or group that can first successfully accomplish this elusive challenge.  


    A May 21, 2001 paper, When Physicists Tried to Explain Evolution, Biologists Cried Foul illustrates the problems in reaching outside one's scientific specialty.


    As scientists continue their efforts it is well to keep in mind Christian de Duve's

    "An important rule in reconstructing the earliest events in life's history is to assume that  they proceeded without the benefit of foresight. Every step must be accounted for in terms of antecedent and concomitant events. Each must stand on it's own and cannot be viewed as a preparation for things to come. Any hint of teleology must be avoided."  American Scientist September-October, 1995


    Today, with few exceptions, the reaction of evangelicals to claims that life emerged from non-living matter through natural processes ranges from deep skepticism to ridicule. This pessimistic position is framed  on probability considerations, scientific grounds, philosophical arguments, and Biblical passages which seem to indicate that life came directly as a result of God's action. However, a few evangelicals suggest that scripture may be read as indicating that created matter came with the potential to produce life.  Both groups believe that God did it - the question is whether the or a plausible mechanism can be demonstrated for an inaccessible event. !



    Most recent addition:  8/14/2012