Children of the CHON: What We Know about Genesis

Back in early 2001, scientists at Ames Research Center in California were exploring some of the interesting organic chemistry that was believed to be occurring in the depths of interstellar space. While most of the general public still viewed “outer space” as a cold vacuum, scientists had realized that it had vast quantities of what they called CHON—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. These elements are the basis for most of the chemical reactions on Earth, including those in all living things. And even if the temperatures in space were near absolute zero, those atoms were being bombarded with energy that covered most of the electromagnetic range, a power source to drive chemical reactions.

So the scientists took a bunch of organic chemicals like water, methanol, ammonia, and carbon monoxide that make up the “ice” in comets and that exist all over the universe, and put them in a chamber, making one of the most perfect vacuums possible. Then they chilled it to minus 271 Celsius, aimed x-rays, gamma, ultraviolet, and microwaves at the formation, and watched to see what would happen.

Scientists had long imagined that life got its start in a warm, nurturing bath of salt water, warmed by the sun and caressed by gentle breezes. Amino acids would somehow form and promptly protect themselves from being dissolved in the water by surrounding themselves with a permeable membrane, like the one that all cells on Earth have.

The problem, to the delight of creationists and others who rejected the notion that life could “just happen” was that nobody could figure out a plausible scenario in which either the amino acids formed and could create a protective membrane before being dissolved by the water, or how a membrane could form without biological processes to drive it. Gleeful true believers wrote of dumping a bunch of nuts and bolts into a washing machine, turning it on, and watching them form into a Mercedes-Benz sedan.

Thus, the people at Ames considered it a major breakthrough when their project created a type of solid material or “amphiphile.” This material, writes Peter Fotis Kapnistos in a 2009 American Chronicle article titled, “Living Proto-Cells Made in Space,” formed bubbles in water: “membranous soap-like structures that had internal and external layers,” he marveled.

While not living material in and of itself, the membrane is essentially the same as that found sheathed around all living cells. “This discovery implies that life could be everywhere in the universe…This process happens all the time in the dense molecular clouds of space,” said project leader Dr. Louis Allamandola in a mastery of understatement.

That was the first part of the equation. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine these amphiphiles being picked up by a stray comet that eventually encounters a planet capable of sustaining life—and that some, in the interior of the comet, survive the ride and find themselves in water.

Within eighteen months, Lewis Snyder of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign headed a team that discovered solid evidence of glycine in interstellar space. This was considered a pivotal discovery, glycine being the most important basic building block of life. However, the discovery wasn’t proven outside of the lab until 2009, when the NASA Stardust mission flew through a cometary halo, the tail if you will, and returned with elemental material from the comet, including glycine.

That left the question of how the amino acids necessary for life formed. As early as 2002, scientists had succeeded in creating seventy different types of amino acids under the same circumstances in which amphiphiles formed.

They recreated the rich clouds of material in which planetary systems (including our own) came together, and they discovered that the amino acids and amphiphiles needed to contain them formed readily in pockets of frozen water vapor (snow) when subjected to x-rays and ultraviolet rays. It was most likely to occur in areas where planets were nearby, since the area in which planets form was in comparatively dense clouds of gaseous matter.

So there are all the elements needed to create life, all tied up in a bow. You have the raw materials. You have the instigating factor. You have a plausible explanation of how amino acids formed simultaneously with the membranes needed to protect them. And you have a method of conveying them to a home where they could evolve.

It seems likely that every planet in the universe has been seeded, not just once but millions of times. And even if the odds of a protocell surviving and reproducing are a million to one, then most planets have life. A Martian meteorite found in Antarctica had tantalizing evidence of micro-fossils. Indeed, life may well be everywhere—in the damp patches on Mars, in the hot soup of Venus, in the possibly sub-ice oceans of Europa, and on the lips of volcanoes on Ganymede. We know that life on Earth exists everywhere from under the ice shelves of Antarctica to the bottom of the deepest ocean. And we are beginning to suspect that the majority of Earth’s biomass may exist, not on the surface, but underground, extending to fifty miles down. We used to believe that a planet capable of sustaining life would be one where temperatures stayed generally between the boiling and freezing points of water. We now know that life on our planet doesn’t have that particular requirement, and some Earth forms may not need water at all. So there’s no reason to suppose that life will be limited to “Earth-like” planets.

In answer to creation myths, we now have solid evidence that not only disputes the notion that Earth was created in order to sustain life, but a viable scenario in which Earth was seeded with life from “out there.”

Of course this doesn’t prove or disprove intelligent design, nothing does. It is and always will be a matter of belief. Even if we are able to chart every process and interaction dating back to the moment of the Big Bang, someone will demand to know just who we think created the Big Bang in the first place. Since it’s likely that we’ll never know what occurred before the Big Bang, or even if there was a before, it’s the ultimate fall-back position for the gods of the vanishing unexplained places.

In the meantime, creationists who don’t dismiss all science as a demonic scheme to lead the faithful astray will feel pressure to abandon the notion that there was an Adam and Eve who were guided to fruition on God’s green earth. Or at least they might come to see those central figures as microscopic and asexual.

The most educated guess is that when life arrived, it was by chance, and planet Earth was then a barren rock with a vile stew of atmosphere that we would doubtlessly find highly toxic today. There’s not any real reason to suppose that the earth even had oceans yet; much of the planet’s water probably came in the form of comets, which not only formed the oceans, but brought along all the building blocks needed for tiny livestock.

If this is discouraging news for those who want our children to believe that men rode triceratops or that the earth rests on the back of a giant tortoise, it’s encouraging news for those of us who are fascinated by the possibility that we’re not the only repository of life in the universe and that we will, one day, not only find other life but may even find intelligent life out there.

If believing it’s possible is an article of faith, it is at least one we hope will prove to be true. That’s a much less tenuous position than accepting truths that are based on faith and can be knocked off by the simple act of squirting some high-energy rays through a cold partial vacuum.

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