Facts, not Fantasy

Monday, January 04, 2010

Origin of Life: Optimism for the Future of Research

Just a quick article from Austin Cline about the writings from Carl Zimmer regarding abiogenesis. Interesting read. Sadly you must have membership to read the full article.

Although the origin of life is not, strictly speaking, a part of evolutionary theory it remains an important field of research not just for biologists generally, but evolutionary biologists in particular. This is because the physical and biological mechanisms behind evolution also must have been behind the natural processes which allowed life to develop. The more we understand how life originated, the more we'll understand about the nature of life itself -- as well as how life evolves.

Carl Zimmer writes in Science (January 9, 2009):

Scientists today who study the origin of life do not share Darwin's pessimism about our ability to reconstruct those early moments. "Now is a good time to be doing this research, because the prospects for success are greater than they have ever been" says John Sutherland a chemist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

He and others addressing each of the steps involved in the transition to life: where the raw materials came from, how complex organic molecules such as RNA formed and how the first cells arose. In doing so, they are inching their way toward making life from scratch.

"When I was in graduate school, people thought investigating the origin of life was something old scientists did at the end of their career when they could sit in an armchair and speculate," says Henderson James Cleaves of the Camegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C. "Now making an artificial cell doesn't sound like science fiction any more. It's a reasonable pursuit."

Causing life to develop in a lab will be a major scientific breakthrough. Although it's technically possible for us to cause life to naturally develop in a manner that differs from how it happened originally on our planet, the fact that life seems to have arisen only once suggests that there may not be too many paths available for this to happen. If that is the case, then however it happens for us in a lab may almost certainly be how it happened billions of years ago.

It will not, however, silence creationists. Demonstrating that life can arise through natural chemical processes will make it harder for them to claim that life cannot naturally come from non-life, but they will likely switch to a weaker argument: namely, that it only happens when conditions are set just right. Of course, they will insist that their god must have set conditions in just the right way. I don't think they will recognize that any deity which operates in such a manner isn't anywhere close to "omnipotence," a traditional characteristic of the Christian god which creationists believe in.

Jack Szostak and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School in Boston have been investigating how fatty acids and other molecules on the early Earth might have trapped RNA, producing the first protocells. "The goal is to have something that can replicate by itself, using just chemistry," says Szostak.

"To me, the origin of life and the origin of Darwinian evolution are essentially the same thing," says Szostak. And if Darwin were alive today, he might well be willing to write a lot more about how life began.

The field of abiogenesis still has a ways to go, but it's producing far more information and making far greater strides than at any time in the past. There are thus good reasons to be optimistic that some decisive discoveries will be made in the near future, even during our lifetime. We can contrast this with creationism, including in the form of Intelligent Design, which has never made any important discoveries of any sort -- or is there any reason to think that they ever will.

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