And so life is looking less and less special. It is not something out of the ordinary, but very much made of ordinary materials from top to bottom, from thought to toenail. A river flows, a cloud floats, a human has fantasies. But what you will not find in all these things is something unusual, something from outside of the elements that are found in the periodic table. A new finding by University of Washington scientists has only reinforced this ordinariness of life. What they discovered was a piece of evidence for the concept that life spontaneously assembled its key components. The component that the UW scientists Roy Black (a UW professor of chemistry and bioengineering), Sarah Keller (a UW professor of chemistry), and Caitlin Cornell (a UW doctoral student) discovered concerns the membranes of cells.
Life must have a boundary between the inside and the outside. For a cell, it is a membrane composed of fatty acids. They automatically form a compartment in water. But the problem has been this: fatty acids and elements that compose another key component of the primitive cell, RNA, do not mix. How did RNA, which is considered to be the ancestor of DNA, end up in a membrane that it can easily destroy? The answer, it turns out, is by linking fatty acids with amino acids, which are the stuff of another key element of the cell, proteins. The point is that all of these materials were available in the young earth, and the UW scientists have found a way they can coexist as a protocell. What this leads us to conclude is that we will make discoveries of this kind as we get closer to the processes that were once thoughtless and evolved into processes that do think: bacteria, archaea, eukaryotes, plants, animals.
From James Urton of SciTechDaily:
A team of researchers at the University of Washington has solved this puzzle using only molecules that would have been present on the early Earth. Using cell-sized, fluid-filled compartments surrounded by membranes made of fatty acid molecules, the team discovered that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, can stabilize membranes against magnesium ions. Their results set the stage for the first cells to encode their genetic information in RNA, a molecule related to DNA that requires magnesium for its production, while maintaining the stability of the membrane.
This is such a cool study about the origin of life. I don’t want to spoil the twist, but do check it out. To me, it’s an astonishingly beautiful solution to a hard paradox about how the first cells came to be. https://t.co/4LbkzFc2MF
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) August 12, 2019
But what does this say about God?
Absolutely nothing. God is not a scientific problem. He is a philosophical and theological one. This is why scientists should never say God exists or not. God is not testable. That said, this finding by the UW scientists only confirms the defining idea of early 20th century Russian biochemist Alexander Oparin. There appears to be no break between inanimate matter and animate matter. What we have instead is a smooth continuum from, say, crystals to concepts. This hypothesis, which has never been contradicted by all of the advancements made in chemistry and biology, is called abiogenesis. And though this is mostly accepted in the origins of life community of researchers, its implications have not been fully elaborated or absorbed by the general public. To say that life is not special is difficult for many to accept because an ant, for example, does not behave like a rock. What is the matter in an ant or frog doing that it is not doing in the rock?
This difficulty will be solved, I think, when we see not the specialness of life but the potential or even compossibilties or ordinary stuff. Matter's potential, a lot of which is still unknown, appears to hold the key to our deepest questions. Not life but what it's made of. The theoretical chemist Addy Pross stated this point beautifully near the end of his important 2012 book What Is Life.
Evolution exploits matter’s propensity for hardness when that is useful, as in bones. It exploits matter’s ability to be flexibly firm when that is needed, as in cartilage; matter’s ability to be liquid when that is needed, as in blood; matter’s ability to be transparent as in crystallin, the protein from which the lens of the eye is made; matter’s ability to conduct electric charge, and so on. But it turns out that matter in some particular organization has an even more remarkable characteristic—the remarkable property of consciousness. Indeed, an extraordinary characteristic—matter can be self-aware. Evolution has discovered that capability of matter, like all others that it has come across, and utilized it in the ongoing search for stable replicating entities. If we want to understand consciousness and its basis, we should study its source—neural activity at its most rudimentary level, and then track the phenomenon, step by step, through to its more advanced manifestations, ultimately to us humans.
The 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza stated in his book Ethics that "no one yet has determined what the body can do." We in the 21st century must make a different statement: We have yet to determine all of the things that matter can do.