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Sorry, Origin-of-Life Researchers, But Bubbles Are Not Cells

Photo credit: Daniele Levis Pelusi via Unsplash.

Aleksandr Oparin is back. Some origin-of-life researchers are using his coacervate theory without giving him credit or realizing they are retreading dead-end ideas. 

The essence of coacervate theory put forward by Oparin (1894-1980) involves two things: random globs of chemicals (i.e., bubbles) and sheer dumb luck. Sidney Fox is incorrect to say in his Encyclopedia Britannica article on Oparin,

By drawing on the insights of chemistry, he extended the Darwinian theory of evolution backward in time to explain how simple organic and inorganic materials might have combined into complex organic compounds and how the latter might have formed the primordial organism. [Emphasis added.]

Fox, whose own “proteinoid microsphere” theory (a variation on Oparin’s theory) decorated textbooks in the 1960s, fails to recognize that Darwinism cannot apply to the origin of life, because accurate replication is a necessary condition for natural selection. Before replication, one can only appeal to natural laws and sheer dumb luck. 

This is a fatal flaw for all such models, which can be dubbed “bubble theories” of the first cells. Under certain physical conditions, containers of material (bubbles) will spontaneously form, entrapping whatever chemicals happen to be around. The putative “membranes” of these bubbles, whether fats, polypeptides, or soap micelles, are blind to what is inside, and frankly couldn’t care less. One can call bubbles by the fancy word coacervates; they are about as similar to real cells as a rubber duck is to a real duck. And yet the myth lives on. Some materialists seem to think that wishing hard enough will make Geppetto’s wooden toy into a real boy, or Frankenstein’s monster get up to the excited cry, “It’s alive!” 

Protocells or Protobubbles?

Origin-of-life research reported at Penn State begins with diagrams of spheres of various diameters. The headline by Sam Sholtis announces, “Models for potential precursors of cells endure simulated early-Earth conditions.” Here comes Oparin without credit:

Membraneless compartments — models for a potential step in the early evolution of cells — have been shown to persist or form, disappear, and reform in predictable ways through multiple cycles of dehydration and rehydration. Such wet-dry cycles were likely common conditions during the early development of life on Earth and could be a driving force for reactions important for the evolution of life.

Understanding how the compartments — known as complex coacervates — respond to wet-dry cycling also informs current applications of the droplets, which are found in many household items, such as adhesives, cosmetics, fragrances, and food, and could be used in drug delivery systems. A paper describing the research, led by Penn State scientists, appears October 27, 2020 in the journal Nature Communications.

Beware of glue-sniffing adhesives, cosmetics, and fragrances. They could induce visions of cells spontaneously appearing from bubbles.

The researchers make a big deal of wet/dry cycles as concentrators of the contents of these bubbles, which they hope might include RNAs for the vision of an RNA World. Whether their bubbles allow molecules to enter or exit is irrelevant to real cells. The fact that there is no accurate replication, and no metabolism, and no coded information, leaves their salad-oil-like coacervates as wooden as Pinocchio.

Windows into the Bubbles

Physicists at the University of Chicago joined in the work on this new coacervate theory. The news, “Study shows how tiny compartments could have preceded cells,” is dressed up with a very sciency picture of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. The half-mile accelerator allowed molecular engineer Dean Matthew Tirrell to peek inside the bubbles after wet/dry cycles. Lo and behold! The ingredients were getting concentrated! They were evolving! It’s alive!

Repetitive cycles of hydration and dehydration “caused a progressive evolution of the compartments,” Tirrell said, which permanently changed the composition of the coacervates.

“This changes the physical properties of the coacervate and affects molecule exchange, which could be a clue for how early life began,” said Alexander Marras, a postdoctoral researcher in Tirrell’s group.

Like the Penn State article, this one failed to acknowledge Oparin. The joint paper in Nature Communications doesn’t mention him, either. Both articles attempt to rationalize the work on the grounds it could help cure cancer.

Understanding how dynamic conditions affect coacervates could have implications in electronic devices that use the polymer compartments in visual displays, or in drug delivery. Compartments like this could be used to carry a therapy within the body, and understanding how polymers assemble and react to changing conditions is key to designing new ways to deliver drugs.

If that were the focus of the work, why speak of their coacervates as “tiny compartments” that “could have preceded cells”? 

ID Bubbles

For contrast, consider the bubbles generated by researchers at the University of Basel. In a video, Dr. Elena dos Santos speaks Swiss-English over country music, boasting of the “cell on a chip” produced by her lab. Using microfluidic techniques, they carefully crafted the shapes and contents of spherical vesicles with polymer membranes. Their goal was to isolate enzymes and substrates that can perform a series of reactions from one bubble to the next. These are clearly intelligently-designed containers made with foresight and planning for a purpose. At every step, the reactions were under the “precise control” of the scientists.

The polymer membrane of the vesicles acts as an outer shell and encloses an aqueous solution. During production, the vesicles are filled with different combinations of enzymes. As first author Dr. Elena C. dos Santos explains, this technique provides some key advantages: “The newly developed method allows us to produce tailor-made vesicles and to precisely adjust the desired combination of enzymes inside.”

Proteins incorporated into the membrane act as pores and allow the selective transport of compounds into and out of the polymer vesicles. The pore sizes are designed to allow the passage of only specific molecules or ions, thereby enabling the separate study of cellular processes that take place closely alongside one another in nature.

Unlike Oparin or Fox, this team was not trying to tell a story about the origin of life. They were performing a biomimetics experiment, modeling how cells isolate molecules in organelles. Good work. Even so, their vesicles are light-years shy of the complexity of living cells.

Additional Information

For more on the problems with Oparin’s coacervates and other bubble theories, see the selections here at Evolution News, by Stephen Meyer and Charles Thaxton taken from Discovery Institute’s updated and expanded edition of The Mystery of Life’s Origin, the 1984 classic by Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen that introduced “intelligent design” as a contender for origin-of-life theories. Meyer also dealt extensively in Signature in the Cell with Oparin’s original and revised theory. 

To show that Oparin the Marxist revolutionary is still honored in the origin-of-life field, read this 2012 article for Evolution News where, despite Oparin’s numerous wrong ideas, Nature almost conferred sainthood on him. As for his famous “complex coacervates,” Nature said, “This hypothesis of colloidal assembly has largely been displaced by other concepts of life’s origins.” Oh really? It’s back!

Meyer mentions Oparin’s fallacy of applying natural selection to chemical evolution briefly in the Illustra film Unlocking the Mystery of Life. Additional problems with random assemblages of molecules in primitive containers are discussed in more detail by Ann Gauger in the film Origin., along with information about the RNA World hypothesis, the impotence of chance, and the minimum requirements for the simplest conceivable cell. The simplest known cells vastly exceed those specifications.