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New “Long Story Short” Video Delivers a Dose of Reality on Origin-of-Life Research

Photo: Airgas delivers its products, by Dwight Burdette, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

If life originated through purely natural processes rather than by intelligent design, the first step must have been the production of its basic building blocks: amino acids, nucleotides, carbohydrates, and lipids. Tonight at 6 pm Pacific time/9 pm Eastern, the humorous “Long Story Short” animated series premieres a new YouTube video on these building blocks, the first of several such videos about the problem of abiogenesis — the origin of life from non-life. You can watch here live at Evolution News. (See it below.) On hand for the premiere will be Discovery Institute scientists Casey Luskin and Brian Miller. 

As with previous entries in the “Long Story” series, Episode 4, “The Basic Building Blocks & the Origin of Life,” provides ample wit as it identifies three ways that, in claiming life’s building blocks can be produced by natural causes alone, origin-of-life researchers dismiss reality. Here I will review the first of those.

Use of Unnaturally Pure, Concentrated Reagents 

Experiments to produce the building blocks of life always begin with unnaturally pure, concentrated reagents. These are purchased from laboratory supply shops and produced through sophisticated, intelligently designed processes. For example, in a 2008 publication, Stanley Miller and his graduate student Jeff Bada reported using a mixture of nitrogen gas and CO2 to produce some amino acids. They described the starting materials this way:

Medical grade nitrogen gas (purity > 99.99% N2) and industrial grade carbon dioxide (claimed by the manufacturer to contain no more than 10 ppm impurities) were purchased from Airgas.

Cleaves HJ, Chalmers AL, Miller SL, Bada JL. A Reassessment of Prebiotic Organic Synthesis in Neutral Planetary Atmospheres. Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2008; 38: 105-115

Where on a prebiotic Earth could you find gasses with no more than 10-parts-per-million impurity? Airgas, the supplier from which the researchers obtained their materials, was not around at the time. I recognize that the motivation to work with such unnaturally pure reagents was to avoid criticism that the experiment was contaminated. However, after succeeding in producing some amino acids from these ingredients, the team of scientists claimed success and moved on. 

And that’s a problem. In my own research on heart disease, the gap between an initial proof of concept (e.g., success in a petri dish experiment) and the practical, widespread application of a new heart failure therapy can be enormous. If I stopped working after proof of concept, publishing only my initial findings but extrapolating the results to claim sweeping success in curing heart failure, I could rightly be accused of academic fraud. The origin-of-life research community is clearly held to a different standard.

Le Chatelier’s Principle

In chemical reactions, the amount of product produced commonly depends on the concentration of the reagents. This is known as Le Chatelier’s principle. Unnaturally concentrated reagents drive the reaction to produce more product. As origin-of-life researcher Pier Luigi Luisi has said: 

[C]oncentration can indeed be seen as a chemical constraint in the origin of life, since chemistry cannot operate below a certain threshold of concentration.

Chemistry Constraints on the Origin of Life DOI: 10.1002/ijch.201300177

On a prebiotic Earth, though, with lower concentrations of reagents and plenty of impurities, Miller and Bada’s reaction may not have produced any appreciable amino acid product at all. For those who want to learn more, my recent book, The Stairway to Life: An Origin-of-Life Reality Check, co-authored with Change Laura Tan, offers a list of 12 required steps to advance from chemistry to the simplest forms of life. The production and concentration of the basic building blocks is only the first of the 12 required steps. 

Again, this is just the first of three problems with experimental production of life’s basic building blocks that are highlighted in the new “Long Story Short” video. In a future post I will describe the toxic products in such experiments.