How the public understands science, or doesn’t understand it, is heavily influenced by the media. And for better or worse, YouTube is a major contributor to that, including in classrooms. The latest episode of the Long Story Short series is out now and it reviews popular YouTube videos on the origin of life. These videos strongly promote the materialist view, encouraging millions, young and old, to embrace the idea that life came from nonlife (abiogenesis) through purely natural processes. However, as explained by Long Story, these popular origin-of-life videos subordinate science to ideology. Accurate science clearly contradicts their teaching. In a series of articles at Evolution News, I’ll be reviewing a few illustrations also touched on by Long Story.
Prebiotic replication of information-containing molecules like RNA or DNA is an essential requirement for abiogenesis, as discussed in the previous Long Story Short episode on replication. As a result, the materialist ideology is eager to claim that this requirement has already been fulfilled in the lab.
The popular video “Where Did Life Come From?” has garnered over 2.6 million views. Released by the PBS channel Be Smart, it has this to say (at 7:54):
Before DNA became a more permanent form of storage, different RNA chains could have carried information, and been the machines for all of life’s important chemistry. Unfortunately, the RNA-Only World went extinct more than 3 billion years ago. But we can make these RNA enzymes today. Scientists have constructed ribozymes that can copy themselves, just like DNA gets copied.
A Closer Look
Let’s take a look at what is claimed here.
The first sentence includes the qualifier “could,” which is appropriate. There’s nothing wrong with stating a hypothesis. However, suggesting that RNA chains could have had the versatility to perform all of life’s important chemistry is quite a stretch, given what we know about ribozymes.1
It then states that “the RNA-Only World went extinct more than 3 billion years ago.” Offering this simply as a fact about the past, with no qualifiers, gives the false impression that the RNA-Only World is well-established science. It’s not. Science has provided many valid limitations for the possibility of an RNA-Only World, and scientists are certainly not all in agreement about the concept.
The statement finishes with an outright falsehood. Although it is true that we can make RNA enzymes today, it has never been demonstrated that a ribozyme can copy itself. Not even close. The most impressive result thus far is from the lab of Gerald Joyce.2 Unfortunately, his paper encourages this type of misrepresentation. The title of the article boasts of “An RNA polymerase ribozyme that synthesizes its own ancestor.” Reading the paper itself reveals a harsher reality. In its optimal form, this ribozyme could not replicate an intact ancestor of itself, but if the ancestor was broken into three template pieces, it could “replicate” each of those.
RNA replication first requires producing a complementary strand of a template, then producing the complement of the complement, which should be a copy of the template. The yield for this ribozyme to produce the complementary strand of each of the three pieces was about 1 percent. With so much junk produced, how could three successful complementary strands possibly advance to the next step in the process? The investigators had to intervene to get all the junk out of the way. Then a second round of copying had to take place to make the complement of the complementary strands (thus producing copies of the three parts of the ancestor). The second round had a lower yield, again requiring intelligent human intervention. If the investigators had required the ribozyme to produce the three correct parts of the original template in a sequence, about 160 billion attempts would have been required, which of course could never have occurred before the ribozyme naturally degraded.
But That’s Not All
They then found that the “replicated” version was far less functional than the original. The challenges listed above only consider formation of the proper length of RNA segments, not the accuracy of copying each “letter” of RNA. The accuracy of copying each letter was only about 92 percent, whereas they admit that a copying accuracy of greater than 99.5 percent would have been necessary “for any realistic values for selective advantage and per-nucleotide fidelity.”
To put this into perspective, imagine that a printing company wished to manufacture copies of a book, first producing six parts that had to be assembled. However, each part had a very low manufacturing yield. Combining a group of six random parts to make a complete book would only happen once in 160 billion attempts. And, after the book was assembled, only 92 percent of the letters in the book were printed accurately. Then this printing company has the audacity to advertise their success in copying a book!
You can see that this result is quite a distance from “An RNA polymerase ribozyme that synthesizes its own ancestor.” To their credit, the authors did inject some reality by concluding:
Thus, the fidelity of RNA polymerization should be considered a major impediment to the construction of a self-sustained, RNA-based evolving system.
Too bad that 2.6 million viewers of “Where Did Life Come From?” have been so misled. To amplify the propaganda in this video, its conclusion boldly states (at 11:39):
This story is based on things that we’ve actually seen, not just on what’s possible.
The accurate part of that statement is calling it a “story.” The rest is a misrepresentation.
Another Self-Replication Fairy Tale
A second popular YouTube video on the origin of life, “What Is the RNA World Hypothesis?” from the channel Stated Clearly, tells this story (at 2:29):
Researchers have found that with a little bit of assistance, base-pairing allows chains of RNA to replicate and evolve. Here’s how it works: When a long chain of RNA is suspended in cool water with high concentrations of free nucleotides, the chain can act as a template for its own replication. Nucleotides automatically base-pair with their partners on the existing chain. If their backbone atoms form chemical bonds with each other — and, by the way, this is the part that currently requires assistance from researchers, we’re not yet sure how this would have happened in the wild — a complementary RNA strand is born. One with the exact inverse sequence of the original. If the water is then heated, paired bases lose their grip, allowing both chains to act as templates when the cycle repeats.
Again, well-established science provides a harsh dose of reality. Stated Clearly says it offers educational videos “in line with NGSS standards [Next Generation Science Standards] for use in classrooms.” A retraction would be appropriate, but the more than 720,000 viewers of this video, including those in classrooms, are unlikely to get one. I’ll have more to say next week.
- “If ribozyme-catalyzed metabolic reactions exist at all, they account for only a marginal fraction of cellular metabolism.” Ralser M. An appeal to magic? The discovery of a non-enzymatic metabolism and its role in the origins of life. Biochemical Journal 2018; 475: 2577-2592.
- Tjhung KF, Shokhirev MN, Horning DP, Joyce. An RNA polymerase ribozyme that synthesizes its own ancestor. PNAS 2020; 117: 2906-2913.