We recently read this article at PhysOrg: Molecules assemble in water, hint at origins of life, which says, with our bold font:
The base pairs that hold together two pieces of RNA, the older cousin of DNA, are some of the most important molecular interactions in living cells. Many scientists believe that these base pairs were part of life from the very beginning and that RNA was one of the first polymers of life. But there is a problem. The RNA bases don’t form base pairs in water unless they are connected to a polymer backbone, a trait that has baffled origin-of-life scientists for decades. If the bases don’t pair before they are part of polymers, how would the bases have been selected out from the many molecules in the “prebiotic soup” so that RNA polymers could be formed?
Good question. The article hints at a possible solution:
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are exploring an alternate theory for the origin of RNA: they think the RNA bases may have evolved from a pair of molecules distinct from the bases we have today. This theory looks increasingly attractive, as the Georgia Tech group was able to achieve efficient, highly ordered self-assembly in water with small molecules that are similar to the bases of RNA. These “proto-RNA bases” spontaneously assemble into gene-length linear stacks, suggesting that the genes of life could have gotten started from these or similar molecules.
The research paper is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society: Efficient Self-Assembly in Water of Long Noncovalent Polymers by Nucleobase Analogues. Getting back to PhysOrg, we’re told:
The discovery was made by a team of scientists led by Georgia Tech Professor Nicholas Hud, who has been trying for years to find simple molecules that will assemble in water and be capable of forming RNA or its ancestor.
The idea seems to be that once the original chain was formed, other atoms could attach themselves to it even though they couldn’t self-assemble in water by themselves, and the chain could eventually become RNA. Neat. There’s also this:
“Thinking about the origin of RNA reminds me of the paradox of your grandfather’s ax,” said Hud, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “If your father changed the handle and you changed the head, is it the same ax? We see RNA the same way. Its chemical structure might have changed over time, but it was in continual use so we can consider it to be the same molecule.”
Grandfather’s ax? That sounds charmingly rustic. There’s a more formal name for what Hud is talking about — it’s the paradox of Theseus’ Ship. After many voyages over a number of years, after the ship’s planks are all eventually replaced and none of the original wood is in the ship, the question which has worried philosophers for more than two millennia is: Does it remain the same ship? Theseus would probably think that it is still his ship. But opinions vary, as you will soon see.
Now let’s look at a creationist reaction to the research described above. As you could have easily predicted, it’s negative. This is from the Discoveroids — described in the Cast of Characters section of our Intro page. Their new article is It’s Life, Jim, But Not as We Know It. They briefly summarize the new research and then explain why they reject it. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:
Note that the authors published their results before taking what would seem to be the obvious next step: Showing that their linear stacks of “proto-RNA bases” could either (1) serve as the missing “polymer backbone” needed to connect real RNA bases, or (2) evolve undirectedly into real RNA polymers.
It’s true that additional research is required, but that’s not much of an objection. The publication provides an interesting direction for future research. Let’s read on:
As it is, the relevance of their work to the origin of life is questionable, at best. Its premature publication may instead highlight the urgency felt by origin-of-life researchers to find some justification, however tenuous, for continued funding — much of that at taxpayer expense.
Sounds like sour grapes — with a touch of panic. If the Discoveroids were ever to publish similarly tantalizing research that could lead to the discovery of their magical designer — blessed be he! — they too could enjoy research grants. Then they mention the “grandfather’s ax” analogy, and they disparage it in their final paragraph:
There’s only one drawback to this appealing homespun analogy. If you change the handle and the head, it’s not the same ax.
It may not be the identical ax, but that’s entirely irrelevant. If this research eventually leads to a demonstration of how early RNA molecules could have self-assembled without any miraculous intervention, then that’s the deal. Game’s over.
But it doesn’t look that way to the Discoveroids. For them, this research offers no possibility for self-assembled life. The Discoveroids want the whole DNA thing to spontaneously poof into existence all at once. And if we can’t figure out a way that could have happened naturally, well then … the only logical alternative is Oogity Boogity!
Unfortunately for the Discoveroids, if this research leads to more intriguing results, then grandfather’s ax, even if its parts have been totally replaced, will be buried in the Discoveroids’ heads; just as that totally renovated ship still belongs to Theseus.
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