The molecule DNA is a double helix in which the strands run in opposite directions. So how better to celebrate our growing confidence in understanding the origin of life and DNA’s synthetic potential than two books in one — back to back and upside down — both called Creation, one on origins, the other on the future.
Until recently, the most widespread hypothesis on the origin of life was that originated by Darwin: “But if (& oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia & phosphoric salts — light, heat, electricity &c present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes.”
This became more than inspired speculation in Stanley Miller’s 1953 experiment in which electricity was passed through a mixture of common gases to produce a few of the organic chemical building blocks of life. But, as Rutherford explains, a bolt of lightning might indeed have stirred a warm pond to produce a few proto-chemicals for life, but then there would follow ... absolutely nothing. Rutherford explains why and outlines a viable alternative.
Creation: The Origin of Life is the latest attempt to popularize the theory that life evolved not in a warm pond but in the deep, cold ocean. This, originally the work of Bill Martin at the University of Dusseldorf, was elegantly outlined in Nick Lane’s prizewinning Life Ascending, and also featured in British physicist Brian Cox’s BBC series Wonders of Life.
Students are taught that the vital attributes of life can be summed up in the mnemonic “Mrs Gren:” Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth-and-repair, Reproduction, Excretion and Nutrition. But we now know that there is a crucial missing factor — one that is the key to the origin of life: constant energy. You can’t make a car go by exploding petrol in a cylinder once only. It has to keep on firing. So what were nature’s primal fuel and spark plugs? The Lost City mid-Atlantic deep-sea vents discovered in 2000 are the best bet. Here, hot, mineral-rich fluids pour into a cold ocean where a rift opens between tectonic plates. They produce mineral chimneys with porous structures in which these energy processes could have become trapped in a micro-environment shielded from the open sea.
By Adam Rutherfor
But energy gradients in themselves are not enough. In fact, there are three things that have to come together to produce free-living life-forms: the energy cycles that now power every living organism, a container cell and a replication process. The first life, according to Rutherford, may not have been cellular at all but merely the contents of cavities in these undersea chimneys. But at some point, the cell had to appear. This is the easy part of the mystery. Cell membranes, made of lipids rather like kitchen sink detergents, self-assemble readily in the laboratory. Rutherford has a nice analogy for this kind of self-organization — he recommends observing a bowl of the breakfast cereal, Cheerios, which will spread across the surface of the milk to create a perfectly regular monolayer (although I think that mini-croutons on chicken soup illustrate the point better). Take phospholipid molecules with one water-loving end and one oil-loving and a sheet of them will automatically roll up into a hollow spherical ball, aka a cell.