Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

The Origin of Life

One Step at a Time

The not-so-mysterious origin of life

Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


Few words in science can provoke quite so visceral a reaction as abiogenesis, the natural origin of life. I get it. The idea of life arising unbidden from nonliving matter can be hard to wrap your head around. But like any idea, it deserves to be examined honestly on its merits. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t.

The origin of life is perhaps the most misrepresented idea on the internet, which is saying something.

Probably the biggest misconception about abiogenesis is that it requires some absurd event like atoms randomly sticking together one day to make a living thing. A willfully dishonest criticism, common in some circles, often reads something like this: “Biophysicist Harold Morowitz says that the probability of a simple cell forming by chance is 1 in 10340,000,000. Even scientists know that abiogenesis is impossible!”

Anyone who has ever fallen for that claim has every right to be annoyed, because they’ve been sold a bill of goods. (Perhaps I should be more blunt: They’ve been lied to.) Were there an Oscar for Most Shameless Misrepresentation of Another’s Work, that little straw man would be a shoo-in.

When not taken out of context, here is what Morowitz had to say: “The ultimate emergence of metabolism seems embedded in the laws of chemistry. . . . In this realm, novelty piles upon novelty, and we change from the rule of systems of physical chemistry to those allowable rules of biology. With the emergence of distinguishable competitive protocols, the world becomes Darwinian, and we move from the domain of relative simplicity to the kind of complexity that eventually leads to the emergence of mind.”

Morowitz’s whole point was that of course life didn’t just pop into existence one day! You don’t get to the top of a mountain by leaping from the valley floor. You get there one step at a time.

origin-of-life-livescience

From hydrothermal vents, to layers in clay, to protected oceans under layers of ice, there were no shortage of places on the early Earth where the chemistry of life might have gotten a toe-hold.

The origin of life is as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.

A recent breakthrough came from Jan Sadownik and colleagues at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. In their experiment, self-replicating molecules emerged spontaneously from a mixture of simpler compounds, then mutated into different species that competed for resources. Quoting from their 2016 paper in Nature Chemistry, “these results mark an important step towards achieving Darwinian evolution with a system of fully synthetic molecules and the synthesis of life.”

Seeing complex organics and self-replicating molecules pop up unbidden is no surprise to MIT biophysicist Jeremy England. Sometimes described as “the next Darwin,” England has shown that as chemical systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium convert useful energy into entropy, they inevitably make things with lifelike properties. “Life,” he says, “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

Not that many years ago, there might have been room to reasonably question whether abiogenesis was possible. That is no longer the case. With our deeper understanding of the inexorable processes of thermodynamics and evolution, and the fundamental chemistry of life emerging in laboratories around the world, the major hurdles to abiogenesis are gone.

Life had a smorgasbord of places to get started.

Was life’s first molecule a protein, or was it RNA? Did it all start with UV-driven chemistry beneath ice sheets, reactions catalyzed by clay, chemistry around hydrothermal vents, or some combination thereof? With such a smorgasbord of ideas to play with, scientists working on abiogenesis face an embarrassment of riches.

We may never know exactly what path led to terrestrial life; you can’t always reconstruct the details of contingent history. But with 3.7 billion-year-old fossilized stromatolites and chemical signatures of life in 4.1 billion-year-old zircons, what we can say is that life was fast out of the gate!

Think of it like this. Suppose you live in L.A., and a friend comes from Arizona to visit. They might have flown. They might have ridden a bus. They might have driven on Interstate 10, or taken I-8 across and then came up the coast from San Diego. Regardless, it’s no surprise that they made it. It’s not that hard to get to L.A. from Arizona.

All the needed pieces are in place.

Given a menagerie of organic molecules, emergent self-replication, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, Darwinian selection, plenty of energy, a beaker the size of Earth and millions of years, the journey from geochemistry to life doesn’t look very hard, either.

Today the facts show that abiogenesis, once a questionable and even radical idea, was no fluke. Quite the contrary, it was a likely and perhaps even unavoidable product of dynamic, natural, unguided processes at work on a recently formed Earth.

If that isn’t mind-blowingly cool, I don’t know what would be!

One Step at a Time ^ The not-so-mysterious origin of life  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Reality Straight Up!

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    The not-so-mysterious origin of life

    Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy’s Rainbow  The statistically likely path to complexityPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughtsUnreasonable Faith
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Entropy is often maligned as the enemy of order. In truth, without the inexorable march of entropy, the universe would be a very boring place.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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