Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, July 27, 2020

Mainstream Keeps Misinforming Us About Origin-of-Life Research

For 70 years the mainstream science literature has presented misleading coverage about origin-of-life research.  There has been a huge amount of bunk and baloney in the press coverage of origin-of-life research, and the statements made on this topic by scientists themselves have often been inaccurate. Many examples of such misstatements can be found here and here and here and here and here and here

A recent press article on origin-of-life research commits the same type of sins committed 100 times before by press reports of origin-of-life research. The article in Knowable Magazine is entitled "Searching high and low for the origins of life."  In its second sentence the article makes this false claim: "Yet recent studies have shown that two essential ingredients — amino acids and primitive cell membranes — can form spontaneously and reliably near the hydrothermal vents found in seafloors." 

The research discussed did not show any such thing. The amino acid research discussed did not measure any spontaneous formation of amino acids near hydothermal vents found in seafloors.  Instead, some scientists produced only one of the twenty amino acids used by living things, using  a glass vial containing ammonia and other substances.  

There are two reasons why such an experimental setup is not at all a realistic simulation of hydrothermal vents in the ocean. The first reason is that while hydothermal vents might rarely produce a little ammonia, there is no reason to believe that an undersea hydrothermal vent would ever be surrounded with a concentration of ammonia anywhere near as great as in the glass apparatus used for the experiment  (about 400 millimoles per liter, which is about 18 grams per liter).  Any ammonia produced in an undersea hydrothermal vent would be so massively diluted by the surrounding ocean water that it would never reach anything close to the concentration of ammonia used in the experiment. In their supporting information document, the scientists discuss the mixture they used, and confess that "these concentrations are higher than would have been present in the early oceans," an admission that they were not realistically simulating the early Earth's oceans. A paper analyzing the chemical composition of fluids collected near a hydrothermal vent makes no mention of ammonia, and this table listing the chemical composition of fluids from hydrothermal vents does not list ammonia as one of the ingredients. 

The second reason why such an experimental setup is not at all a realistic simulation of hydrothermal vents in the ocean is that the experimental setup used a closed glass apparatus, without using any continual water flow to simulate the circulation of water that would constantly occur undersea (and would occur even more strongly around a hydrothermal vent).  A similar experimental flaw was one of several gigantic flaws of the famous Miller-Urey experiment, an experiment which tried to simulate the atmosphere using a closed glass apparatus, but failed to account for the circulation of gases in the atmosphere. There were no closed glass jars or enclosed glass units billions of years ago. 

It is rather easy to do an origin-of-life experiment taking into account either the circulation of gases in the atmosphere or the circulation of water in the ocean.  For example, an experiment can be done outdoors, allowing a natural circulation of air currents and precipitation. Or an experiment can be done indoors in an open area that receives air currents of about 5 or 10 miles per hour, as well as occasional simulated rainfall produced by sprinklers or similar devices.  An experiment simulating the ocean can have a constant circulation of water produced by some kind of faucet-like apparatus or water jet that keeps running. 

But our origin-of-life experiments keep failing to provide this most basic requirment for a realistic simulation of early Earth conditions.  Below is a photo from the hydrothermal vent simulation experiment discussed by the Knowable Magazine article (from the Supplemental Information here).  

Such a visual is laughable. The ocean is a place of constant water circulation. You do not realistically simulate the ocean with a little sealed-off glass container like this. The yellow arrow points not to a stream of water simulating circulating water in the ocean, but to a solution of ammonia and other chemical reactants "slowly injected" into the water.  

There is a reason why origin-of-life experiments typically use sealed glass devices that fail to simulate the circulation of gases or water in the early Earth. The reason is that if they were to realistically simulate the early Earth, their experiments would never produce anything very noteworthy related to the origin of life. 

What was the result of this experiment claiming to simulate ocean hydothermal vents, but failing to realistically simulate such a thing? Only one type of amino acid was produced: alanine, one of the two simplest amino acids. There are twenty types of amino acids used by living things. 

Does the article in Knowable Magazine tell us about the experiment producing only one of the twenty types of amino acids used by living things? No, instead it gives us some language that might make us think that all twenty types of amino acids were produced.  We are told "the hydrothermal vent proponents say they have all the right ingredients." 

Talking about "ingredients" is appropriate when talking about food preparation, but inapproprate when referring to the fantastically ordered complexity of even the simplest living thing.  But if you insist on referring to "ingredients of life," you would have to list 25 ingredients needed for living things: the twenty types of amino acids used by living things, and the five types of nucleotides used by DNA and RNA. Experiments attempting to simulate hydrothermal events have not produced more than one or two of these 25 ingredients.  So how on earth can the article be claiming that "the hydrothermal vent proponents say they have all the right ingredients"? One or two out of 25 is 4% or 8%. Since when does 4% or 8% equal 100%? 

Bragging about having all the right ingredients for the random appearance of life is like saying that your typing monkey can produce 300-page textbooks, because your keyboard has all the right characters of the alphabet.  And if your keyboard has only one  or two of the 26 characters of the alphabet, it would be particularly misleading to make such a statement.  It is just as misleading to brag about having "all the right ingredients" when only one or two of 25 necessary ingredients for life have been produced by experiments trying to simulate hydothermal vents. 

As for the Knowable Magazine's claim that cell membranes "can form spontaneously and reliably near the hydrothermal vents found in seafloors," it is baloney.  The article is talking about kind of fatty bubbles. Such things are incomparably simpler than the membranes of cells, which are fantastically complex things, as discussed here The paper cited does not mention any experimental technique realistically simulating hydrothermal vents or any early Earth conditions.  The experimenters simply started out with solutions very dense with fatty acids, and observed some bubbles they called "vesicles" (a term that is appropriately used only when talking about a bubble-like structure in cells).  The Knowable Magazine article incorrectly calls such a mere bubble a "protocell," using the same very inappropriate term used in the title of the scientific paper. 

How did the researchers get these bubbles? Their utterly preposterous procedure is described in the supplementary information of their paper, which you can read hereYou can get a rough idea of what was going on by imagining someone half-filling a large salad bowl with water, and dumping 14 cans of powder into the water. What the researchers did is to dump absurdly huge amounts of many types of fatty acids into a solution of water.  Table 2 shows that they put into their solution about 900 grams per liter of each of 14 different types of fatty acid.  The resulting solution had about 13,000 grams of fatty acids per liter, and was probably as thick as syrup or gravy.  This is a totally unnatural solution not corresponding to anything that would have existed in the oceans of the early Earth.  It is unlikely that any liter of water in the early Earth's ocean had even a thousandth of this amount of fatty acids.  But the Knowable Magazine article most inaccurately describes this ridiculously artificial concoction as a "laboratory replica of ancient deep-sea conditions."  

We are being misinformed here not only by the writer of the Knowable Magazine article, but also by the scientists who authored the paper, who had no business using the term "protocell" after merely producing bubbles from a solution artifically packed with such a ridiculous abundance of fatty acids.  Since no one has ever observed anything like a mere fatty bubble turning into a cell, it is extremely misleading language to be referring to such a fatty bubble as either a "protocell" or a "primitive cell membrane." 

  1. Pour 900 grams of a fatty acid into a liter of water (half the size of a 2-liter soda bottle).
  1. Repeat this step 13 times, using a different fatty acid each time.
  1. Heat or shake the resulting syrupy mixture, to produce bubbles.
  1. Triumphantly call these bubbles “protocells” or “primitive cell membranes.”
Suitable for elementary school students, but not honest ones

During the past 70 years we have been told so many false or misleading things by those reporting about origin-of-life research that you may be forgiven if you regard the literature of origin-of-life research as being not half as credible as the sales pitches of used car salesmen

1 comment:

  1. I am pretty sure about this information you shared because its really helpful for everyone.
    neutron star example