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October 19, 2009 10:48 PM   Subscribe

While evolution is one of the best-supported theories in science, one lay criticism is that it doesn't explain the creation of life from non-life, or abiogenesis. This is a different problem domain, of course, as survival of the fittest hardly applies if there's nothing alive yet. There have been many guesses over the years: the most commonly accepted is "the primordial soup". That's probably what you learned in school, the Frankenstein's Monster approach to cell creation. Start with a random chemical bath, throw enough lightning at it, and mysterious magic happens, somehow resulting in life.

Dr. William Martin of the University of Düsseldorf, working with geochemist Mike Russell, has presented an actual theory of abiogenesis. It neatly explains both bacteria and archaea, describes fairly closely why they function the way they do, and shows why we don't see new life being created now. Their suggestion: our original ancestor wasn't lightning-zapped soup, but rather a proton-powered rock.
posted by Malor (75 comments total) 85 users marked this as a favorite

 
If you read nothing else today, make time for this article. It's freaking awesome.
posted by Malor at 10:49 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I call dibs on calling my band Proton Powered Rock.
posted by mightygodking at 10:50 PM on October 19, 2009 [5 favorites]


There's a nice nugget of an intro to abiogenesis as part of the iron-sulfur world theory in the October 2002 Geochemical News (starts on p6) by Russell and Hall: "Chemiosmotic coupling and transition element clusters in the onset of life and photosynthesis".

Lots more can be found in these generous "previews" on Google Books:

Between Necessity and Probability
Life in the Universe: Expectations and Constraints
Amino Acids and the Asymmetry of Life
posted by buzzv at 11:08 PM on October 19, 2009


somewhat related
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:23 PM on October 19, 2009


The primordial soup had croutons!
posted by flabdablet at 11:29 PM on October 19, 2009 [4 favorites]


Related: Earlier this year scientists did in fact manage to create RNA from the simple building blocks and conditions which would have been present in the so called "primordial soup". Article was published in Nature. This other theory is certainly interesting, but it will take some more work to dethrone the dominant paradigm, especially as evidence continues to build in favor of it.
posted by sophist at 11:38 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


New Scientist? Ugh.
posted by delmoi at 11:39 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Awesome. We need to study the ocean a helluva lot more.
posted by roygbv at 11:39 PM on October 19, 2009


This is fantastic.

My access to the Nature Reviews: Microbiology journal is on a year delay. I am going to read the article on November 1st.
posted by clearly at 11:52 PM on October 19, 2009


Sophist: it doesn't sound like this theory is very different, it just explains the specific environment where it would have been easy for RNA to form, plus a lot of other features, such as free energy available to biological processes.

Awesome. We need to study the ocean a helluva lot more.

None of this stuff is still around, the oceans were chemically very different. Acidic, rather the Alkali, and with tons of iron dissolved in (according to the article)
posted by delmoi at 11:52 PM on October 19, 2009


This was really interesting.
posted by Scattercat at 11:56 PM on October 19, 2009


Veridicality has recently published a commentary: The terrestrial evolution of metabolism and life – by the numbers
posted by hortense at 12:00 AM on October 20, 2009


It would be really exciting if they come up with some testable theories like "If life started this way, you should find a certain kind of rock near old vents"
posted by delmoi at 12:02 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, so first you say our ancestors were monkeys, now they were rocks?!
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:04 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


"The God of my rock; in him will I trust: he is my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence." -- 2 Samuel 22:3

"He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he." -- Deuteronomy 32:4

"Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee." -- Deuteronomy 32:18

"Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel". -- Exodus 17:6
posted by orthogonality at 12:08 AM on October 20, 2009 [21 favorites]


Sophist: it doesn't sound like this theory is very different,

Well, it's far advanced over the version I learned in school; there are specific metabolic pathways described, a description of how the scaffolding might have served as replacements for cell walls before they were evolved, and how that scaffolding itself encouraged the creation of both RNA and DNA.

The other theories that I've been exposed to don't really even qualify as such, more as handwavy guesses. Basically, they're just "... and then magic happens". As sophist says, they have shown spontaneous RNA construction, but it's a long, long way from there to a functioning cell -- it's kind of like finding a copper bolt on the ground that was accidentally formed by lightning, and claiming that enough of these events created the Space Shuttle. That's not impossible, but it is appallingly unlikely, and would need a lot more evidence.

There's still magic in this theory, but there's far less of it, and it should be quite possible to attack the problem further from here. It's a THEORY, not just a vague generality. It's an actual framework that says, "Life started here, using these specific processes, and spread in this way", and I certainly haven't seen anything equivalent.

It's one hell of a lot more plausible than Frankenstein Life.
posted by Malor at 12:22 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Let there be Rock" -- AC/DC 1977
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:27 AM on October 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


My favorite early evolution of life theroy is viral eukaryogenesis, which basically says we have sex because we are descended from viruses.
posted by afu at 12:34 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Porous rock? I wonder, are comets also porous, perhaps from the out-gasing when they heat?
posted by Goofyy at 12:44 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


For some reason these sorts of things make me emotional. I don't know if it's that I can't fully wrap my head around the ideas or that because when I'm confronted with just how amazing and beautiful the universe is I feel a bit silly for spending so much time worrying about little things - like what to wear to work.

*sniff sniff*
posted by Partario at 12:53 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Awesome. We need to study the ocean a helluva lot more.

Psssh. We evolved air breathing capabilities to get out of that dump.
posted by clearly at 12:54 AM on October 20, 2009 [11 favorites]


Maybe God helped a little with the whole turning non-life into life?
posted by dearsina at 1:09 AM on October 20, 2009


Maybe God helped a little with the whole turning non-life into life?

I think if you look at the things we've previously attributed to God throughout history, until we found out how they actually work or actually occurred, you'll decide this is probably a losing position.
posted by floam at 1:25 AM on October 20, 2009 [9 favorites]


Interesting article. But no theory need carry the weight of being the "origin" theory for life. 4 billion years is a helluva long time, and this world is big enough and old enough to have provided many, many nutrient rich micro-climes in which life may have originated. It's possible that life "originated" several times, in several places, and perhaps, even died out, altogether, a few times.

For life to have become the diverse ecology that it has, through the full range of conditions that we understand from the fossil record, that this planet has provided in the past, and now, continues to provide, it is quite possible that life need not have had highly specialized root conditions as a requirement, in all origin instances. Other work is finding that the membrane problem may not be as significant an issue in early evolution as has been thought.

Though it is just a personal opinion, I think taking the view that the development of early life was not a fragile, unlikely chain of events, but a common, predictable, robust likelihood, by a number of means, in a number of locations, is a better way of thinking about its origins. And, a more hopeful one, for the likelihood of discovering exolife, too.
posted by paulsc at 1:36 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


It would be really exciting if they come up with some testable theories like "If life started this way, you should find a certain kind of rock near old vents"

Pfff. That's part of how they came up with these theories.

And boring. It's clear what we should be doing next: trying this at home.
posted by weston at 1:43 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, so first you say our ancestors were monkeys, now they were rocks?!

"He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he." -- Deuteronomy 32:4

"The generic usage in Genesis meaning "mankind" reflects the view that Adam was the ancestor of all men. Etymologically it is the masculine form of the word adamah meaning ground or earth ... Gen. ii. 7 explains that the man was called Adam because he was formed from the ground (adamah)."
posted by weston at 1:45 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


And boring. It's clear what we should be doing next: trying this at home.

What happens if we come up with 3 or 4 different possibilities?
posted by delmoi at 2:59 AM on October 20, 2009


Maybe God helped a little with the whole turning non-life into life?

Sure He did. Who do you think provided the rocks, the water, the protons, gravity and all the other laws of physics and chemistry?
posted by PlusDistance at 3:59 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


So when Roger Ramjet takes his proton pill ... that's a documentary now, right?
posted by nonspecialist at 4:13 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


"the man was called Adam because he was formed from the ground (adamah)"
So... nothing to do with the guy who brought the crew of the Galactica here 200K years ago?
posted by bashos_frog at 4:32 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


This theory only explains the origins of some life. And it does nothing to explain how the eye developed or why there are no transitional forms, so I highly suspect it isn't true. And Who put those protons there in the first place? HAMBURGER
posted by mccarty.tim at 4:52 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think biology needs to move beyond origins and focus on manufacturing cryptids. In particular, I'd like to see atmospheric beasts, because we really don't have any large lighter-than-air animals, and we seem to love the whimsy of things floating around. Ideally, they'd split hydrogen from water to get lift, and we could hunt them to drive our cars. It seems like jellyfish would be a good starting point.

The fact we even have cryptozoology shows that we're bored with the animals we already have. It's high time we make some new ones, since cryptozoology has been pretty good at proving cryptids don't exist. And I'm tired of having the only other sentient beings being humans, and the aliens are taking too long, so it'd be cool to get some leprechauns, too.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:00 AM on October 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


I didn't evolve from no rock!
posted by shakespeherian at 5:02 AM on October 20, 2009


shakespeherian: "I didn't evolve from no rock!"

Your mother was an ore!
posted by PontifexPrimus at 5:25 AM on October 20, 2009 [29 favorites]


Julia Child has a recipe for primordial soup
posted by smcameron at 5:47 AM on October 20, 2009


Great article. I love how in the short time I've been around, we've managed to reduce the intellectual leaps required for understanding our origins to the point where they're less a leap than a shuffling step.

I use "we've" in the most euphemistic sense, of course; I haven't done much more than read magazine articles about the work being done by science.
posted by Pragmatica at 6:23 AM on October 20, 2009


There's still magic in this theory, but there's far less of it, and it should be quite possible to attack the problem further from here. It's a THEORY, not just a vague generality.

I think they're actually hypotheses.
posted by electroboy at 6:56 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Know your role." - The Rock
posted by Joe Beese at 7:05 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Can you smell what The Rock is cookin?
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 7:08 AM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Maybe God helped a little with the whole turning non-life into life?
posted by dearsina at 4:09 AM on October 20


hey maybe you can get an nsf grant with your fascinating proposal

abstract: god did it

article: it has come to my attention that some things are not fully understood.i would like to present a grand unified theory of science in this paper that shows the way in which things go by the reason of god did it. the experiment is simple if you do not understand what happened or what a thing happened you say maybe god did it and the answer is solved by way of god did it

also i did a graph of thing i did not know about and asked did god do it (fig. 1)

conclusion: if i do not udnerstand a thing god did it also this applies to things that we know about like internal combustion engines which for instance we know about strokes and sparkplugs but where does the spark come from maybe it is the spark of life that god imbues in his creations.thank you.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:11 AM on October 20, 2009 [44 favorites]


And it does nothing to explain how the eye developed or why there are no transitional forms, so I highly suspect it isn't true

This is a theory about the generation of life, not evolution. But... for an excellent explanation of how the eye might have developed, see this. Intermediate forms may also serve a different function from the current use. I believe SJ Gould suggested that wings might have been a thermoregulating device before they became useful for flight.
posted by stinker at 7:32 AM on October 20, 2009


Stinker, I believe mccarty.tim is being sarcastic. Hence the HAMBURGER.
posted by arcticwoman at 7:49 AM on October 20, 2009


oops, got it
still, David Attenborough is my hero

posted by stinker at 8:01 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


"To be a rock, and not to roll."
posted by philip-random at 8:14 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's possible that life "originated" several times, in several places, and perhaps, even died out, altogether, a few times.

I think if life occurred de novo once on Earth, it's almost unlikely that nothing equivalent ever happened again. But working from the assumption that a newly-formed self-sustaining and regenerative "life-like" process would be more fragile than one which has had time to optimize and evolve, it seems probable that, once one form of life had gotten a strong foothold on existence, other spontaneous instances of life would tend to be quickly overwhelmed, consumed, or otherwise out-competed.

Thus, it's not surprising that every existing organism traces its origins back to the same initial point. Not because it couldn't have happened more than once, or in different ways, but because only one instance would ultimately be expected to survive. This argument would not, however, apply in the same way to variations within the tree of life, as all of the endpoints (existing organisms) have had exactly the same amount of time to evolve.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:37 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


(very) tangentially, "No God" is the top trending topic and twitter right now and the Christians are throwing a fit, thus making it even more of a trending topic, which is amusing me greatly this morning.
posted by empath at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2009


(ON twitter)
posted by empath at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2009


Uther Bentrazor : Can you smell what The Rock is cookin?

In a perfect world, a decade or three from now, this idea will be taught in all grade-school biology classes, and in order to make it more approachable to the students, a video will be made.

At the appropriate time, when the film is showing the resultant diversity from the rock's introduction, the narrator will say "Can you smell what the Rock is cookin? All life on the planet!.. Oh yeah..."

And everyone will shift in their seats. A little uncomfortable at the attempt to connect with them with such an out of date expression.

I say this because I want to be the one to produce the class film...
posted by quin at 9:09 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh hell yes.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 9:49 AM on October 20, 2009


For some reason these sorts of things make me emotional . . . *sniff sniff*

The other night my fiancee turned to me as I was watching some random science show on TV (various poorly-dressed science guys talking on about about waves), "You keep saying 'Huh... huh...' and nodding your head, every time one of them makes a point. It's like one of those ladies in church yelling 'Amen! Hal-le-luj-ah!' during the pastor's sermon. I think this is church for you."

I had to nod my head and say "Huh..." to that, because she had a pretty darn good point. It's an almost religious awe one can feel to experience the veil over creation being drawn just a bit further away, or a sacrament to perceive the previously unsuspected connection between two, or many, seemingly disparate pieces of knowledge. (This article even had a Creation Story thrown in to boot!)

Though I was pretty self-conscious about it for the rest of the show.
posted by theDTs at 9:57 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


For those evolved from rock, we salute you.
posted by Sublimity at 10:21 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yeeeessssss, we draw one step closer to my re-enactment of Sandkings.
posted by Justinian at 10:33 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


(very) tangentially, "No God" is the top trending topic and twitter right now and the Christians are throwing a fit, thus making it even more of a trending topic, which is amusing me greatly this morning.

It appears to be trending because they keep on tweeting "Know God... Know Peace. No God.. No Peace!." - so basically they are having a total shitfit at themselves.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on October 20, 2009


>>Personally, I think biology needs to move beyond origins and focus on manufacturing cryptids. In particular, I'd like to see atmospheric beasts, because we really don't have any large lighter-than-air animals, and we seem to love the whimsy of things floating around. Ideally, they'd split hydrogen from water to get lift, and we could hunt them to drive our cars. It seems like jellyfish would be a good starting point.

This is rather tangental, but you might enjoy Leviathan.
posted by Caduceus at 10:56 AM on October 20, 2009


Or the Arthur C. Clarke story "A Meeting with Medusa".
posted by Artw at 11:04 AM on October 20, 2009


God is an abiogenetic quantum mechanic with evolutionary tendencies.
posted by philip-random at 11:12 AM on October 20, 2009


It appears to be trending because they keep on tweeting "Know God... Know Peace. No God.. No Peace!." - so basically they are having a total shitfit at themselves.

Interesting, well now that they started it, I'd like to continue the trend of No God Tuesdays.
posted by empath at 11:23 AM on October 20, 2009


zoomorphic: Consider this [••••••••••] a bundle of an additional ten favourites.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 11:27 AM on October 20, 2009


"A big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere...and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys."
posted by Hardcore Poser at 12:17 PM on October 20, 2009


Maybe God helped a little with the whole turning non-life into life?

Perhaps he did. Now let's use science to figure out how he did it.

What? You mean if I knock over a glass of milk the scientific reason it falls and the milk flows out isn't "Never teh Bride made it happen, end of story"?
posted by Never teh Bride at 1:04 PM on October 20, 2009


Everybody wants a proton-powered rock to wind a piece of string around.
posted by lholladay at 1:30 PM on October 20, 2009


Never teh Bride - That was you moving in a mysterious way.
posted by Artw at 1:31 PM on October 20, 2009


What's funny on Twitter is that you can see "know peace" is a fairly lower trending topic than "no god." As in "no god" is 1st, and "know peace" is 5th. Thus, it's not like it's mostly people saying "No God, no peace..." and a handful of atheists, as they'd be next to each other then, with "no god" only slightly leading.

Granted, I got a C in Statistics, so I may be way off, guys.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:07 PM on October 20, 2009


mccarty.tim - That would be my guess. Even excluding trolling atheists a number of people are going to say stuff like "No cola in the fridge? There is no god!" at any time, which will push "no god" up, but no one is randomly saying "know god" or "know peace" so they rank lower.

Except now it's looking like someones gotten in and tweaked it, so there's "know peace" in there but no "no god", and that's getting trumped by favourites of yesterday like #beatcancer.
posted by Artw at 4:12 PM on October 20, 2009


Oh, and the link to "know peace" also has "no peace" as a synonym, which is not something I've seen there before, so someone is definitely doing some hands on tweaking.
posted by Artw at 4:14 PM on October 20, 2009


Weaksauce, twitter.

I say atheists declare every Tuesday "no god" day on twitter.
posted by empath at 5:39 PM on October 20, 2009


"... But working from the assumption that a newly-formed self-sustaining and regenerative "life-like" process would be more fragile than one which has had time to optimize and evolve, it seems probable that, once one form of life had gotten a strong foothold on existence, other spontaneous instances of life would tend to be quickly overwhelmed, consumed, or otherwise out-competed. ..."

posted by dephlogisticated at 11:37 AM on October 20

Not if the previous version life forms had gone extinct. In that case, subsequent fragile, but likely, new life forms could self-actualize, in this very same, although serially "sterilized" "test tube" of a world, time and again.


"... Thus, it's not surprising that every existing organism traces its origins back to the same initial point. Not because it couldn't have happened more than once, or in different ways, but because only one instance would ultimately be expected to survive. This argument would not, however, apply in the same way to variations within the tree of life, as all of the endpoints (existing organisms) have had exactly the same amount of time to evolve."

If life co-spawned in a number of different circumstances, and thus evolved under several sets of parallel co-conditions, it could still appear to fit the "single origin" hypothesis, because of subsequent genetic swapping, as theorized by those researching horizontal gene transfer.

The "tree of life" may, in fact, be a jungle, with a lot of contemporary, competing "roots," and no clear "origin," except those that we needy souls make in our myths.
posted by paulsc at 8:22 PM on October 20, 2009


Been a long time since I've been to a website that so badly wanted me to go away.
posted by neuron at 9:28 PM on October 20, 2009


I'm not well-versed in the lit of evolutionary microbiology, so I'm certainly not an authority on the subject. I definitely agree that a lot of swapping and combining probably happened during the early stages of life (and continues to happen today—we have bits and pieces of retroviruses all throughout our DNA). But the problem with horizontal gene transfer is that it requires genes, and those genes have to be written in the same language. And without a standard genetic code, it's hard to imagine a way in which any given recombination among early proto-cells could be transmitted to further generations (though I fully acknowledge that a failure of imagination on my part is by no means a limit on the bounds of scientific inquiry).

In any case, many aspects of contemporary life seem remarkably universal. With few exceptions, every organism on earth uses the same twenty-two amino acids, and all of these are left-handed (for no obvious reason). All organisms use RNA and DNA for replication and protein synthesis. Essentially all organisms use glycolysis for metabolism. At the very least, these facts tells us that there was a point of convergence at some point in evolutionary history. Whether this point was the origin of all life as we know it—who knows?
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:31 PM on October 20, 2009


Well saying that DNA is 'written' in a 'language' might be taking a metaphor too literally. If you have the right molecules in the DNA/RNA strand, it'll make the right proteins.

I guess the next step is to try and reproduce these conditions in the lab and see if we can create life no?
posted by empath at 9:48 PM on October 20, 2009


By language, I was referring to the genetic code, which specifies a unique trinucleotide sequence for each amino acid. I could be wrong, but I believe the code itself is arbitrary—i.e., that there's no specific reason why UUA codes for leucine and not serine. Although there are exceptions (there always are), the code is remarkably well-conserved among contemporary organisms, though it certainly might not have been that way in the early stages of life.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:11 PM on October 20, 2009


I could be wrong, but I believe the code itself is arbitrary—i.e., that there's no specific reason why UUA codes for leucine and not serine.

The code is actually organized in a way that reduces the chance that point mutations will change the amino acid and, if they do, reduces the chance that they will change the kind of amino acid (hydrophobic/hydrophilic, etc). It actually isn't clear that this was selected for, but the organization definitely isn't totally random.
posted by gsteff at 11:04 PM on October 20, 2009


Damn, you're absolutely right, gsteff. I forgot that part. Thanks for the correction.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:26 PM on October 20, 2009


I'm frequently dumbfounded at the random shit I remember from my genetics course. I miss science...
posted by gsteff at 12:08 AM on October 21, 2009


Neat stuff, terrible article. Oh NewScientist, never change!
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:44 PM on October 21, 2009


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