On July 16–21, Fazale “Fuz” Rana and I attended the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL) Conference held at the University of California, San Diego. The climax of the conference was the Wednesday (July 19) evening session devoted to answering the question, “64 Years after Miller Experiment, Can the Formation of Building Blocks of Life Be Considered As Solved?” (The Miller Experiment in 1953 was when Stanley Miller sparked a gas mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water to produce a low-abundance level of a few of the simpler amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.) A panel consisting of four of the world’s top origin-of-life researchers (Nicholas Hud, Jack Szostak, Steven Benner, and Donna Blackmond) moderated by Antonio Lazcano, Stanley Miller’s research partner and past president of ISSOL, attempted to answer this question.
All four of the panelists and the moderator answered “No” to the posed question. Steven Benner even added that the building blocks of the building block molecules of life are either missing on the early Earth or they exist at abundance levels far too diluted to be of any use.
The day before, the morning sessions of the conference were devoted to discussing the environmental conditions for the origin of life on the early Earth. The first presenter, Yoichiro Ueno, began his talk by pointing out that there was no conceivable hope for a naturalistic origin of the building block molecules of life unless oxygen was totally absent from Earth’s atmosphere.1 However, he speculated that rather than the origin of life occurring on Earth 3.8 billion years ago, it actually occurred much earlier—during the Hadean era, 4.4–4.0 billion years ago.
The Hadean era gets its name from extensive evidence establishing that Earth’s surface previous to 4.0 billion years ago was hellishly hot. However, a few zircons dating back to that period show that there were brief episodes in at least a few locations on Earth during the Hadean era when liquid water was present. Ueno further speculated that during these brief episodes Earth had a reducing (oxygen-free) atmosphere. He then referred to Miller-type experiments that demonstrate ultraviolet-induced photochemistry can produce eleven of the twenty bioactive amino acids.2
Ueno was by no means alone at the ISSOL conference in speculating that a reducing atmosphere on the early Earth was a critical component to a naturalistic origin of life. A consensus emerged among the origin-of-life conference researchers that there simply was no other way to explain life’s origin from a materialistic perspective.
The problem with these speculations about Earth’s early atmosphere is that the most ancient zircons establish that Earth’s mantle oxygen fugacity (tendency to escape or expand isothermally when pressure is released) has not deviated much, if at all, during the past 4.3 billion years.3 This conclusion is confirmed by Archaean (4–3 billion-year-old) mantle residues and magmas that reveal a redox (reduction-oxidation reaction) state equivalent to present-day values.4 These results led geophysicists Brian Hynek and Stephen Mojzsis to conclude in a paper published in Geology, “The resultant atmosphere from outgassing is correspondingly expected to have been at least mildly oxidizing from the early days.”5
What does an “at least mildly oxidizing” atmosphere imply about the origin of life on Earth? It rules out all naturalistic or materialistic origin-of-life models. It establishes that the origin of life on Earth must have been achieved by a super-intelligent, supernatural Being.
Feature image credit: Tim Bertelink, Wikimedia Commons
- Y. Ueno et al., “Revisiting Redox State of the Early Earth’s Atmosphere and Prebiotic Synthesis,” XVIIIth International Conference on the Origin of Life, LPI Contribution No. 1967 (July 16–21, 2017 at UC San Diego, CA, USA): Abstract #4129, https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/issol2017/pdf/4129.pdf.
- Sean Henahan, “From Primordial Soup to the Prebiotic Beach: An Interview with Exobiology Pioneer, Dr. Stanley L. Miller, University of California San Diego,” Access Excellence (October 1996): https://web.archive.org/web/20080518054852/https://www.accessexcellence.org/WN/NM/miller.php.
- Dustin Trail, E. Bruce Watson, and Nicholas D. Tailby, “The Oxidation State of Hadean Magmas and Implications for Early Earth’s Atmosphere,” Nature 480 (December 1, 2011): 79–82, doi:10.1038/nature10655.
- Dante Canil, “Vanadium in Peridotites, Mantle Redox and Tectonic Environments: Archean to Present,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 195 (January 30, 2002): 75–90, doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(01)00582-9.
- Brian M. Hynek and Stephen J. Mojzsis, “The Great Mars Climate Paradox Redux,” Geology 45 (February 2017): e410, doi:10.1130/focus102016Y.1.