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Purifying Bad Results: How Origin-of-Life Researchers Cheat via “Relay Synthesis”

Photo credit: PhotoCave, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Abiogenesis, a hypothetical natural process to explain the origin of life, must explain first of all the arrival of basic building blocks: amino acids, nucleotides, carbohydrates, and lipids. A new and humorous animated video, “Long Story Short, The Origin of Life; Part 1: The Basic Building Blocks,” emphasizes three ways that origin-of-life (OOL) researchers dismiss reality when claiming that the building blocks of life can be produced by natural processes. In a series of articles accompanying the video’s release, I have been reviewing three problems with OOL research toward production of the basic building blocks. (See here and here.) I will now turn to the third.

Relay Synthesis

After performing a first experiment to produce a building block of life, then claiming success and publishing a paper, researchers always start the next experiment by purchasing pure, concentrated building blocks. For example, having successfully shown that the first experiment can produce any amount of an amino acid, the researchers dispose of the results from the first experiment and start the next experiment with a new, clean flask and pure, concentrated amino acids purchased from a laboratory supply. 

This “relay synthesis” approach is essentially a silent confession that the products of their first experiment are not of practical use. A relay synthesis approach is required because of the poor concentration of product and the preponderance of impurities resulting from the first reaction. 

As OOL 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

Hopelessly Dispersed

The poor yields of origin-of-life chemical reactions simply forbid sequential reactions. This is not a question of scale — even if the “chemist’s flask” were the entire Earth, the relatively large mass of desired product would be hopelessly dispersed amongst the unwanted, interfering products. As shown by the Allchemy simulation, such reactions can be expected to produce 99.776 percent unwanted molecules and only 0.224 percent desired molecules. (See A. Wołos el al., “Synthetic connectivity, emergence, and self-regeneration in the network of prebiotic chemistry,” Science (2020).)

Abiogenesis would require a natural method to stop the reaction when the yield of desired molecules is high, followed by a prebiotically plausible filter that could remove the 99.776 percent undesired products, followed by a natural means to concentrate the remaining desired molecules, and a means of repeating this process for each successive step toward life. These requirements are far from being recognized in laboratory experiments.

For those who want to learn more about the subject, my recent book, The Stairway to Life, describes 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. The remaining 11 steps are substantially more difficult than the first.