Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began

By John Horgan

Primordial SoupExactly 20 years ago, I wrote an article for Scientific American that, in draft form, had the headline above. My editor nixed it, so we went with something less dramatic: "In the Beginning…: Scientists are having a hard time agreeing on when, where and—most important—how life first emerged on the earth." That editor is gone now, so I get to use my old headline, which is even more apt today.

Dennis Overbye just wrote a status report for The New York Times on research into life’s origin, based on a conference on the topic at Arizona State University. Geologists, chemists, astronomers and biologists are as stumped as ever by the riddle of life.

After its formation 4.5 billion years ago, Earth was bombarded for millions of years by huge meteorites, which would have wiped out any fledgling organisms. Researchers have found evidence of microbial life dating back 3.5 billion years ago, suggesting that life emerged fairly quickly—"like Athena springing from the head of Zeus," as one scientist quoted by Overbye put it. But how exactly did chemistry first make the transition to biology?

As recently as the middle of the 20th century, many scientists thought that the first organisms were made of self-replicating proteins. After Francis Crick and James Watson showed that DNA is the basis for genetic transmission in the 1950s, many researchers began to favor nucleic acids over proteins as the ur-molecules. But there was a major hitch in this scenario. DNA can make neither proteins nor copies of itself without the help of catalytic proteins called enzymes. This fact turned the origin of life into a classic chicken-or-egg puzzle: Which came first, proteins or DNA?

RNA, DNA’s helpmate, remains the most popular answer to this conundrum, just as it was when I wrote "In the Beginning…" Certain forms of RNA can act as their own enzymes, snipping themselves in two and splicing themselves back together again. If RNA could act as an enzyme, then it might be able to replicate itself without help from proteins. RNA could serve as gene and catalyst, egg and chicken.

But the "RNA-world" hypothesis remains problematic. RNA and its components are difficult to synthesize under the best of circumstances, in a laboratory, let alone under plausible prebiotic conditions. Once RNA is synthesized, it can make new copies of itself only with a great deal of chemical coaxing from the scientist. Overbye notes that "even if RNA did appear naturally, the odds that it would happen in the right sequence to drive Darwinian evolution seem small."

The RNA world is so dissatisfying that some frustrated scientists are resorting to much more far out—literally—speculation…


Cross-check: Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began

The Poached Egg

Recommended Resources: The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate | Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and the Theology of Creation