Origin of Life in a Knot

Blaber, MichaelA research team lead by Michael Blaber at Florida State University College of Medicine recently reported advances on overcoming the obstacles in understanding a proposed natural mechanism for the origin of life on Earth.

The team produced data to advance the theory that amino acids can form proteins autonomously plus fold autonomously through some self-assembly process. Proteins function biologically only after their long chain of amino acids has been folded into a specific molecular structure. Fold-ability is essential for function.

While the team’s approach aligns with Charles Darwin’s “warm little pond” theory, Blaber’s evidence undermines the more popular “RNA-first” origin of life theory.

In a letter to Joseph D. Hooker in 1871, Darwin speculated that

“the first production of a living organism [stemmed from]… in a warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts, −light, heat,, electricity, &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo more complex changes” 

The team results were published in the January 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Simplified protein design biased for prebiotic amino acids yields a foldable, halophilic protein.” The three-year study was built around investigative techniques developed over a period of more than 17 years. Halophiles are microorganisms living in extreme environments. 

In an April 14, 2013 interview with Doug Carlson of PhosOrg, “The current paradigm on the emergence of life is that RNA came first and in a high-temperature environment,” Blaber explained. “The data we are generating are much more in favor of a protein-first view in a halophile environment.” The halophile environment is characterized by temperatures over 30 degrees centigrade (over 86 degrees Fahrenheit) in very high concentrations of salt−concentrations 5-times greater than ocean water. 

This is presents a radical paradigm shift even for “Protein-first” origin of life theorists. “The halophile, or salt-loving, environment has typically been considered one that life adapted into, not started in,” Blaber said in the interview. “Our study of the prebiotic amino acids and protein design and folding suggests the opposite.”

In the “Protein-first” model, the folding of the long amino acid chains is critical for biological function. The folding of proteins into specific global shapes permits interaction with other molecules to perform specific chemical functions. “In other words,” Blaber explained, “they [proteins] have to be able to fold.”

Blaber is the first to demonstrate the fold-ability of selected amino acids in the infamous, but discredited, theoretical oxygen-free “cosmochemistry” environment originally proposed by Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey in 1952. Like the Stanley Miller experiment, an oxygen-free environment is essential. Oxygen-free environments are also known as reducing environments, or reducing atmospheres−the typical atmospheric environment found in space.

Of the 20 known human essential amino acids, in the laboratory Blaber has successfully demonstrated fold-ability with 12 amino acids using a technique called “top-down symmetric deconstruction.” Given these prerequisites, Blaber’s lab has been able to identify small peptide building blocks from these 12 amino acids with the potential to spontaneously assemble into specific folded protein-like structures.

“RNA-world” proponents are not likely to jump-ship for the “Protein-first” hypothesis due to the daunting list of lingering obstacles.

Before the “Protein-first” hypothesis gains mainstream traction, though, Blaber will need to resolve the oxygen-free environment problem. Just a year after Urey advocated the “cosmochemistry,” University of Chicago geochemist Harrison Brown was one of the first to suggest that either the Earth most have lost its original interstellar atmosphere or it never had a reducing atmosphere with no oxygen.

In the 1960s, Princeton University geochemist Heinrich Holland and Carnegie Institution geophysicist Philip Abelson agreed with Harrison Brown’s observation.Working independently, Holland and Abelson concluded that the Earth’s primitive atmosphere was not derived from reducing interstellar gases, but from oxidizing gases released by the Earth’s own volcanoes. From the available evidence, the Earth’s ancient and modern atmospheres are the same—oxidizing, not reducing.

In 1975, Belgium biochemist Marcel Florkin denounced the reducing atmosphere theory, stating, “the concept of a reducing primitive atmosphere has been abandoned,” and the Miller–Urey experiment is “not now considered geologically adequate.”

In 1982, British geologists Harry Clemmey and Nick Badham wrote in the journal of Geology that the evidence showed “from the time of the earliest dated rocks at 3.7 billion years [presumably], Earth had an oxygenic atmosphere.”

As Jon Cohen wrote in the journal Sciencein 1995, many origin-of-life researchers now dismiss the 1953 experiment because “the early atmosphere looked nothing like the Miller–Urey simulation.”

Dustin Trail of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York reported in the prestigious journal Nature In 2011 based on molten rock (magmas), estimated to be 4,000 million years old, the presence of oxygen. The paper entitled “The oxidation state of Hadean magmas and implications for early Earth’s atmosphere,” co-authored by E. Bruce Watson and Nicholas D. Tailby, reported –

“We find that the melts have average oxygen fugacities [gas pressure] that are consistent with an oxidation state… similar to present-day conditions.”

Oxygen on early Earth was similar to today−not a reducing atmosphere as Urey’s cosmochemistry theory had required.   

In an interview posted on The Daily Galaxy, Watson put into perspective the implications of the finding:

“We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere.”

The atmosphere is not alone in toppling Blaber’s theory, so is the unavailability of raw chemical resources for the formation of amino acids. According to Dean Kenyon, biology professor at San Francisco State University, there have never been enough resources on Earth to form even one protein molecule –

“If the association of amino acids were a completely random event… there would not be enough mass in the entire earth, assuming it was composed exclusively of amino acids, to make even one molecule of every possible sequence of… a low-molecular-weight protein.”

Even if there were enough resources, self-assembling and folding presents another. Self-assembly has limited capacity to generate increasingly complex functions. Self-assembly is inherently redundant. As Stephen Meyer in the book Signature in the Cell explains,

“Therefore, self-organizational forces of chemical necessity [self-assembly], which produce redundant order and preclude complexity, preclude the generation of specified complexity.”

In the book Life Itself, Nobel Prize winner and co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick explains,

“An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now; could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which have to be satisfied to get it going.”

Why Blaber invested resources in a hypothesis long known to be physically impossible underscores the emerging recognition that origin of life research is now securely bound in a knot. 

Evolution was once a theory in crisis, now evolution is in a crisis without a theory.

Biological evolution exists only as a philosophical fact, not a scientific fact.

10 Responses to “Origin of Life in a Knot”

  • JLAfan2001:

    “Given these prerequisites, Blaber’s lab has been able to identify small peptide building blocks from these 12 amino acids with the potential to spontaneously assemble into specific folded protein-like structures.”

    I would suggest it’s time to come off the creationist train. Science will soon figure the origins of life out and God will have even less to do. This data proves we are getting closer and all the other quotes you posted are just sour grapes.

  • Thanks for your post. Scientists, however, should follow the example of Isaac Newton by following the available evidence – not speculations. Speculations belong in the realm of philosophy – not science.

  • JLAfan2001:

    I don’t understand how having empirical evidence of proteins spontaneously folding counts as speculations. This was one of the problems with the origins of life and it’s getting solved. Once we break a barrier, the info will just rush in.

  • It is true, once the legions of problems are solved, speculations can stop. Science does not rest on speculations.

  • JLAfan2001:

    Don’t know where you’re getting your facts from other than quote mining. The articles that I’ve read show that the early atmosphere was reducing not oxidizing. Miller just got the reducing gases wrong. Oxygen would have been poisonous to early cells so there is no way they would have developed.

  • You might want to check out some of the references in the article. Oxygen is the third most abundant molecule in the universe. You might find the article entitled “The Origin of Oxygen in Earth’s Atmosphere” published is Scientific America http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=origin-of-oxygen-in-atmosphere interesting, too. The article suggests that oxygen abundant on the Earth nearly 3 billion years ago.

  • fanttasttic!
    wonderfull thanx
    Yes but any real info?

  • Hope we have some real info – especially since we all paid a lot for the program.

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  • Greetings! Thanks for your very kind comments. Let’s keep pressing on. Rich

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