Another way how life may have begun

Religion thrives on mysteries, those things that seem so inexplicable that we do not know how to even begin investigating them, what questions to ask, and what tools to use to study them. We are tempted to just throw up our hands. Puzzles, on the other hand, are those things for which we do not as yet have answers but do know what questions to ask, have hypotheses about what might be going on, and can investigate systematically.

Science has been steadily transforming mysteries into puzzles and, if history is any indication, once something becomes a puzzle, it eventually gets solved. This is the reason why science and religion are on an inevitable collision course. Religion needs mysteries to survive while the scientific imperative is to convert mysteries into puzzles and then to solve the puzzles.

There are currently just four areas that religion is trying to preserve as mysteries: the origin of the universe, the origin of life (i.e., the occurrence of the first self-replicating molecule), the source of morality, and consciousness. I would argue that all four of these are well on their way to becoming puzzles in that we already have a handle on how to address them scientifically.

Now comes further research that adds to our knowledge about the second of the four, the origin of life.

The team from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: “This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.”

The paper can be viewed here. In the abstract they describe the experiment that they did.

Here we present laboratory experiments in which we shocked ice mixtures analogous to those found in a comet with a steel projectile fired at high velocities in a light gas gun to test whether amino acids could be produced. We found that the hypervelocity impact shock of a typical comet ice mixture produced several amino acids after hydrolysis. These include equal amounts of D-and L-alanine, and the non-protein amino acids _-aminoisobutyric acid and isovaline as well as their precursors. Our findings suggest a pathway for the synthetic production of the components of proteins within our Solar System, and thus a potential pathway towards lifethrough icy impacts.

In the paper’s conclusions they summarize the implications.

These results present a significant step forward in our understanding of the origin of the building blocks of life. The fact that impacts occur is without question; it is also known that comets contain significant quantities of the compounds used in this study, and that these compounds are found on the impacted surfaces of many of the icy bodies in the outer Solar System.

Our results demonstrate that we have synthesized several amino acids by shock impacting an ice mixture. This provides an additional, realistic, synthetic pathway for the building blocks of prebiotic compounds, increasing the chances of life originating and being widespread throughout our Solar System.

This new work adds to the many hypotheses that are currently being investigated and have been described by Robert M. Hazen in his 2005 book Genesis: The scientific quest for life’s origins.

It provides further evidence that the origin of life has stopped being a mystery and become a puzzle.


  1. trucreep says

    Regarding the origin of the universe, I was reading this theory that is starting to get some looks. It ah, was mostly over my head, but it had to do with some sort of black-hole that operated in 4 dimensions…having an event horizon in 3 dimensions…membranes….uhhh…I should probably just link it to you ;]

    I’m sure you can come away with some more insight than I did! Anyway, just shows how amazing SCIENCE is, never stop asking why, never stop asking how! :]

  2. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for the link. It seems like an alternative solution to the inflationary hypothesis to explain the uniformity puzzle. I like it when there are alternative theories. It forces people to make finer distinctions.

  3. trucreep says

    Yeah, that much I did understand; trying to figure out why the temperature is uniform across the universe….or the ‘uniformity puzzle.’ ;] I like it too, even if the theory turns out to be false, you may see something in a new light because of it.

  4. ShowMetheData says

    I have been keeping an eye on things with respect to the formation of base amino acids/molecules in ice

    The idea is that while the tranactions in ice are slower, there are features that make amino acids and proteins possible
    1) SO many ice pockets – each with different ratios of base chemicals
    2) The shape of the ice pockets can contain the base chemicals without a membrane

    So it might not be a hot primordial soup – have you checked your freezer lately???

    From a PDF describing an experiment

    “Tests later confirmed their hunch—that in 25 years the frozen mixture had coalesced into the molecules of life: building blocks of RNA, DNA, and proteins. The results of that experiment would tilt the tables of how we think that life began on Earth.”

    Another version of this PDF –

    And a wiki article on the 1953 experiment (Miller–Urey experiment)

  5. Mano Singham says

    Wow, thanks so much for that Douglas Fox article! It was absolutely fascinating. The idea of reactions speeding up at colder temperatures seems so counter-intuitive but the eutectic freezing enabling more rapid reactions by increasing local concentrations is a beautiful idea.

  6. Matt G says

    I was just reading about an alternative to the RNA World hypothesis which is called the peptide-RNA World. The argument against the RNA World hypothesis has to do with the time frame required. The researchers infer the existence of urzymes, ancient proteins which would have sped things up. The paper was just published in JBC.

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