Stanley Miller of Miller-Urey fame, by NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

We’re Still Clueless about the Origin of Life

An excerpt from The Mystery of Life's Origin: The Continuing Controversy The Mystery of Life's Origin: The Continuing Controversy

Organisms have well-defined molecular assemblies, redox potentials across membranes, and metabolic pathways — all operating in exquisite states that we call “life.” 

Chemistry, by contrast, is utterly indifferent to whether anything is alive or not. Without a biologically derived entity acting upon them, molecules have never been shown to “evolve” toward life. Never.

While organisms exploit chemistry for their own ends, chemicals have never been seen to assemble themselves into an organism. Origin-of-life research keeps attempting to make the chemicals needed for life, and then to have those assemble toward something to which they are inherently indifferent. But try as they might, without preexisting life no researchers have ever seen molecules assemble into a living cell, or anything even remotely resembling a living cell. Contrary to the hyperbole of press reports, any synthetic molecularly derived structures that have been touted as being cell-like are in reality far from it. This situation might change in the future, but it is unlikely to change under the current course of research. Scientists have no data to support molecular “evolution” leading to life. The research community remains clueless. 

Led Astray by Researchers’ Claims

Many scientists and professors who are outside boutique origin-of- life circles have been led astray by researchers’ claims and the subsequent press, thinking that far more is known about life’s origin than really is known. This has affected the highest seats in the academy where even some science professors confuse origin of life with biological evolution. Like a muddy prebiotic cesspool, confusion abounds in the academy. 

Two-thirds of a century since the 1952 Miller-Urey experiment, where some racemic amino acids were formed from small molecules and an electrical discharge, the world is no closer to generating life from small molecules — or any molecules for that matter — than it was in 1952. One could argue that origin-of-life research is even more befuddled now than it was in 1952 since more questions have evolved than answers, and the voluminous new data regarding the complexity within a cell makes the target much more daunting than it used to be.

Consider the Progress in Other Fields

Consider what has occurred in other fields in the past sixty-seven years since Miller-Urey performed their experiments: human space travel, satellite interconnectivity, unlocking DNA’s code and its precise genetic manipulation, biomedical imaging, automated peptide and nucleotide synthesis, molecular structure determination, silicon device fabrication, integrated circuits, and the Internet, to name just a few. 

By comparison, origin-of-life research has not made any progress whatsoever in addressing the fundamental questions of life’s origin. Two-thirds of a century and all that has been generated are more suggestions on how life might have formed — suggestions that really show how life probably did not form. Nothing even resembling a synthetic cellular structure has arisen from its independent components, let alone a living cell. Not even close. 

Perpetual Motion Machines

In 1775, the French Academy in Paris refused to entertain any further proposals for perpetual motion machines; the devices just did not work as advertised. No one knew why not — the mature science of thermodynamics, which gave us a theoretical account for why the perpetuum mobile schemes failed, lay nearly one hundred years in the future — but the machines clearly failed. Today we need a French Academy-like directive toward origin-of-life proposals; for, like perpetual motion machines, such proposals just do not work as advertised. Instead we should explore why scientists have failed to produce life. Clearly life can exist — unlike perpetual motion machines, we have the ubiquity of life surrounding us on this planet. But there needs to be a wholly different scientific approach to reveal life’s origin. 

This is an appeal to the origin-of-life research community: Step back and consider the claims within the research, the true state of the field, the retarded state of the science relative to other research areas, and the confusion or delusion of the public regarding life’s origin. Many researchers in origin-of-life organic synthesis are superb scientists. However, overly confident assertions, exaggerated and spread by the over-zealous press, have led to gross public misconceptions regarding what is and is not known concerning the beginning of life.

James Tour

Professor of Chemistry, of Computer Science, and of Materials Science and Nano-Engineering
James Tour is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Computer Science, and Professor of Materials Science and Nano-Engineering at Rice University. A synthetic organic chemist, he received his BS in Chemistry from Syracuse University, his PhD in synthetic organic and organometallic chemistry from Purdue University, and postdoctoral training in synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin and Stanford University. He has served on the faculty of the University of South Carolina and as a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Tour has over 700 research publications and over 130 patent families.