Home » News, Origin Of Life » If today’s origin of life theorists are right, life did not originate.

If today’s origin of life theorists are right, life did not originate.

Creation-Evolution Headlines notes the latest tassel on the fringe discipline of science, origin of life, asking us to note the words used in the Abstract. We did our own analysis, for fun:

Mulkidjanian, Koonin et al., “Origin of first cells at terrestrial, anoxic geothermal fields,” PNAS, February 13, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1117774109.

Abstract: All cells contain much more potassium, phosphate, and transition metals than modern (or reconstructed primeval) oceans, lakes, or rivers. Cells maintain ion gradients by using sophisticated, energy-dependent membrane enzymes (membrane pumps) that are embedded in elaborate ion-tight membranes. The first cells could possess neither ion-tight membranes nor membrane pumps, so the concentrations of small inorganic molecules and ions within protocells [Is there any evidence protocells ever existed? Why do none exist now?] and in their environment would equilibrate. Hence, the ion composition of modern cells might reflect the inorganic ion composition of the habitats of protocells. We attempted to reconstruct the “hatcheries” of the first cells by combining geochemical analysis with phylogenomic scrutiny of the inorganic ion requirements of universal components of modern cells. These ubiquitous, and by inference primordial, proteins and functional systems show affinity to and functional requirement for K+, Zn2+, Mn2+, and phosphate. Thus, protocells must have evolved in habitats with a high K+/Na+ ratio and relatively high concentrations of Zn, Mn, and phosphorous compounds. Geochemical reconstruction shows that the ionic composition conducive to the origin of cells could not have existed in marine settings but is compatible with emissions of vapor-dominated zones of inland geothermal systems. Under the anoxic, CO2-dominated primordial atmosphere, the chemistry of basins at geothermal fields would resemble the internal milieu of modern cells. The precellular stages of evolution might have transpired in shallow ponds of condensed and cooled geothermal vapor that were lined with porous silicate minerals mixed with metal sulfides and enriched in K+, Zn2+, and phosphorous compounds.


It’s a pretty thin case. Speculation, not evidence. If origin of life theorists are right, life did not originate.

If only someone could find a protocell, we’d have something to discuss. The fact that after all this time, no one has ever found a legendary “protocell” is suspicious, surely.

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15 Responses to If today’s origin of life theorists are right, life did not originate.

  1. Suspicious? Not to an evolutionist. The wonders of evolution never cease to surprise.

  2. ID would gain more respect from doing research than from sneering at actual research and sneering at speculations that suggest lines of research.

    ID is supposed to be science, is it not?

  3. The article seems to be saying that conditions need to be very specific for our particular form of life to begin.. Since those conditions, a CO2 atmosphere and no competition in the biosphere are not present in the environment today,it not too suspicious that protocells haven’t made an appearance.If you look at science in general, the tools are improving and with better tools ,new areas of study are opened. Maybe it is a little quick to throw in the towel.

  4. 4

    Petrushka, you call pointing out the obvious ideological bias underlying researchers’ conclusions and the flimsy evidential basis for those conclusions “sneering.” I take it you are denigrating this activity. And all this time I thought you and your fellow travelers were in favor of scrutinizing scientific conclusions as part of the much venerated “self-correction” process. Your candid admission that you disfavor the expression of any thought, comment, observation, or view that runs counter to your metaphysical biases is very helpful. We can now evaluate everything else you say in light of your admitted closemindedness. Thank you.

  5. I don’t see any conclusions in the OP. I see speculations that suggest lines of research.

    There is indeed a bias that the physical world is governed by regular processes. This is consistent with the fine tuning version of ID, as expressed by people like Michael Denton.

    I see no metaphysical implications. Just a desire to find regular processes wherever they may be found.

    Finding them may make some theories of intervention unnecessary, but it says nothing about final causes.

  6. I love OOL research. Every new idea seems to put another nail in the coffin of the previous idea. Lots of fun stuff.


    First of all, ID is not sneering at research and speculations. Individuals, some of whom may also support ID, might sneer. But ID is a simple series of design questions that don’t sneer.

    Regardless, it is perfectly reasonable to question speculations and point out the problems. That, too, is a legitimate part of debate and science.


    I agree that we shouldn’t necessarily expect to see the elusive, undefined, theoretical protocell in our environment today. But it is also perfectly reasonable to question whether there ever was such a thing, given that there is no empirical evidence for it.

    Also, I agree that tools are improving in science all the time. In the OOL arena, what our increased tools and knowledge keep revealing is that the gaping chasm to get life off the ground in a purely naturalistic process is growing wider and wider the more we learn.

  7. I’m working on a paper for the August SPIE Astrobiology meeting where extremophiles are shown to have a multiparameter limits to their growth. That is, at low temperature the alkaline resistance is different than at high temperature. Ditto for salinity and vacuum and so on. One then constructs a multiparameter space of ph, T, [Na+], etc and looks for patterns.

    To a large extant, Koonin does this same experiment, only he isn’t using extremophiles as we are. But his conclusions are completely dominated by this Darwinian conceit of “common descent”.

    Suppose for the moment, that your ancestor was a monkey, and this supposedly explains your opposable thumb. But wait, maybe your ancestor was a savannah monkey like a baboon, how does that explain opposable thumbs? And where did the tail go? And for that matter, why couldn’t racoons be an ancestor–they have opposable thumbs? The point is that this common descent argument neither predicts nor is falsifiable. The presence or absence of opposable thumbs can neither verify nor invalidate the thesis. Common descent doesn’t require similarity, it only suggests it.

    So applying this to protocells, there is nothing in a cell that requires the protocell to have formed in a hydrothermal vent. It can only suggest it. And it is unfalsifiable. So what is the point of the argument in the first place, if it is only suggestive?

    In contrast, the paper I’m contributing to (I’m the physicist, not the microbiologist), suggests that there are physical limits to growth that are true of extremophiles today and ancestral organisms then. Life could no more evovle in hot acidic pools than it could grow in them today. And the predictions are testable and can be invalidated as well.

    If Koonin turns his attention to the mechanisms of OOL, rather than the origins of OOL, he would have a fruitful contribution. But as long as origins is the Holy Grail of common descent, we must endure these suggestions of non-verifiable hypotheses.

  8. If life exists in hot, acid, metal-laden environments now – and indeed it does – e.g. Aciduliprofundum boonei, Caldivirga maquilingensis, Metallosphaera sedula – why could it not evolve there?

  9. Bydand, two thoughts:

    You are absolutely right that life exists in some incredibly inhospitable environments. I’m also convinced that we haven’t yet seen the strangest. We’ll eventually discover some form of life that thrives in even harsher environments than currently anticipated. As a result, we can’t assume that life didn’t evolve in such harsh environments.

    However, most extremophiles possess specific cellular mechanisms to allow them to deal with extreme pressure, or extreme temperature, or extreme radiation, or lack of sunlight, or other extreme environmental challenges. The idea of OOL has been not to just look at where life can survive, but to find a place, any place, that would be *conducive* to life taking hold. It is reasonable to expect that such a place would be closer to the middle of the road. It is hard enough to imagine life getting off the ground in the most favorable of circumstances. If we add in additional cellular requirements to deal with extreme and hostile environments, it just makes the odds that much worse.

  10. I don’t agree, Eric. I think there may be a case for saying that OOL was more likely in a turbulent, energy-rich, reagent-rich environment; than in a quiet, warm little pond.

  11. …why could it not evolve there?

    Perhaps nothing, but these are observations of what we already know is possible; information-rich biochemistry works.

    But nothing in this answers the central question. Evolution requires representational arrangements of matter, coordinated to physically-instantiated rules, in order for the recorded information it depends upon to operate.

    OOL research that does not attempt to find a mechanism capable of creating representations and transfer protocols has not made it to first base.

  12. Bydand @10

    Well, first we were talking about real extreme environments: extremely hot, high acidity, high radiation, etc. If you’re now just talking about “turbulent, energy-rich” and with reagents, then sure, it might be just as, or even more, likely than Darwin’s warm little pond.

    I’m just pointing out that for really extreme environments, including extreme acidity or radiation, which would normally destroy cellular function, it seems strange to think that life would first come about in such an extreme environment, rather than in an environment that wouldn’t require deep specialization and special cellular mechanisms.

    These are interesting questions. But of course none of it even scratches the surface of the real issue, which Upright BiPed has mentioned.

  13. Yes, but you’re thinking of these as adaptations of life from a “gentler” environment

    Why should not the life in my garden pond actually be adapted from much harsher environments?

    I maintain that if life can exist in those extreme environments, then it could have started there.

    Having said that, I’ll see what phylogenetic studies have been done on extremophiles, and what they say.

  14. Bydand:

    What you are proposing is that life is more likely to have arisen naturally in a place that requires more and greater adaptation — and the required machinery to go with it — than in a place that doesn’t. It is an interesting idea, but I’m struggling to see why one would think that is the more likely route for a naturalistic OOL.

    As far as whether life in your garden pond adapted from much harsher environments, I think that is very possible. One thing that evolution does seem capable of doing is breaking machines and simplifying organisms. So if life started in a more harsh environment with cellular machinery needed for that harsher environment, then that life may well also have been capable of living in more friendly environs.

    If someone reads my post quickly it may seem that I am speaking from both sides, but I am not. What I am saying is (i) life likely started out being capable of thriving in very harsh environments, (ii) it didn’t happen naturally (and the naturalistic story is not helped by arguing for harsh environments that require additional cellular mechanisms).

    (Finally, I should add that I am speaking in generalities here. It is possible we might find that in some extreme environment the extreme environment itself provides a characteristic helpful to life such that the organisms in that environment are actually simpler and require less cellular machinery than in a more “friendly” environment. In that case such an environment might be a good location to study for possible OOL. The key point here is that the more cellular information/machinery/specilization required for a particular environment, the harder it is for a naturalistic story to get off the ground. That should be, one would think, pretty straightforward.)

  15. I pretty much agree with you @ #14, Eric.I’ll just add into the brew that we already know that there are cells with small genomes down there round the black smokers , and there are viruses too, so complexity may indeed not be a sine qua non for survival there.
    No doubt all this is being studied (will ID scientists be involved, I wonder?) – and in the meantime things like polymerases derived from extremophiles are now absolutely essential in the molecular biology lab.
    That brings me to a question – evolutionary biologists will in part study these organisms with a view to elucidating their ancestry, and relationships to other organisms. Would ID scientists study them in any different way, do you think?

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