Evolution News and Views (ENV) provides original reporting and analysis about the debate over intelligent design and evolution, including breaking news about scientific research.

Evolution News and Views
Life Sciences & Origin of Life NEWS
 

Desperate for Good Headlines, Origin-of-Life Theorists Push Meager "New Organics in Meteorites" Story

800px-Sutter's_Mill_Meteorite.jpg

As evidence for the chemical origin of life, the news media are touting a new analysis of a meteorite that fell to earth in Sutter's Mill, California, in 2012. According to the Los Angeles Times, the rock contains "seeds of early life," which could have helped generate "[t]he primordial soup of the early Earth." Is this real science journalism, or just public-relations for materialism?

There are three main types of meteorites: iron (metallic), stony (silica- and oxygen-rich), and stony-iron. Some stony meteorites, called chondrites, contain nodules of distinct minerals, called chondrules. Some chondrites are rich in carbon, and we unimaginatively call them carbonaceous chondrites. Though far less common than the other types of meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites are much more discussed because their carbon compounds are of interest to origin of life theorists hoping to explain how the fabled "primordial soup" might have arisen on the early earth. According to both the recent flurry of news stories and the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) that set it off, this meteorite is interesting because it is the first carbonaceous chondrite found which contains the organic compounds "polyethers and polyether-esters."

Carbonaceous chondrite meteorites are nothing new. So why is the Sutter's Mill meteorite making news? Let's start with the scientific answer to that question, and then move on to the political one.

The scientific reason this meteorite is making news is because, as the PNAS paper explains, "The composition of these hydrothermally released compounds is so far unique and comprises mainly O-containing species, such as polyethers and polyether esters, which had not been extracted from other meteorites..." Polyethers and polyether esters are interesting organic compounds, but they aren't amino acids, nucleotides or other building blocks of proteins, RNA, and DNA. They certainly aren't the "seeds of life" (whatever that means).

I sent this paper and some of the news stories to an unnamed ID-friendly specialist in organic chemistry who is familiar with this field, and in his immediate impressions of the paper, he concurred with this assessment:

I found this one interesting (Sandra Pizzarello continues to develop new and interesting ways of analyzing the organics in meteorites) but underwhelming. That she found lots of previously unseen compounds is interesting from an organic chemist's point of view but hardly surprising. The number of carbonaceous chondrites / meteorites analyzed compared to the vastness of space is still quite small - I can almost count all of them on the fingers of one hand. We will continue to have surprises in this field for the foreseeable future - which is good for her as it will keep her lab in funding for as long as the money is available from NASA. What is most surprising is the total lack of nitrogen in the organics: that means no amino acids, and no nucleo-bases. With this material as the starting point for the pre-biotic soup one cannot even imagine proteins or nucleic acids coming from this stock much less make a wild-eyed scientifically sound extrapolation (is there such a thing) of them. To put this in context, imagine the Miller-Urey experiment without amino acids: Miller has to abandon his thesis project with Urey and work on something else = no fame, no fortune. The whole field of pre-biotic chemistry never gets started.

But based on what she did find suggests that there are still unexplored pathways to form organic compounds in "outer space." Which is good news for the organic chemists but bad news for the biologists as these compounds will never lead to life. Without nitrogen, no proteins = no enzymes, and no nucleo-bases = no RNA world. So, forget that kind of spin. But it will be fun for the organic chemists to try and come up with a mechanism for how these compounds (polyethers and polyether esters) formed. Miller and his students would have dived in trying all kinds of simulation experiments / conditions to try and reproduce this mix. Alas, Stanley is gone so who knows if this will ever get worked out.

In my thoughts about the article in the LA Times I will be less kind about. The title is at best misleading, at worst it is down-right fraudulent. As I said above, without the nitrogen containing compounds, this soup is not going to cook. Period. End of story. There are no "seeds of life" to spill-out. So to spin it as another discovery about how life might have arisen just misses the point. It is as accurate as "Dewey defeats Truman." Furthermore, the chemistry is about as accurate as you would expect from someone who never passes a high school chemistry class. As science reporting, that article is terrible. Clearly it was written by someone who knowingly or unknowingly wanted to promote the abiotic origin of life hypothesis but wasn't sharp enough to notice that in terms of a smoking gun, this article didn't even have bullets, much less a gun to fire them (remember, there is no nitrogen in the organic fraction).

And once again the atheistic materialistic spin is that we keep finding the "building blocks of life" (even when they are not there) and despite the lack and any viable chemical pathway to proteins or nucleic acids the rest is just a matter of time. This makes as much sense as me going to the local hardware store and because I find a loose assortment of nuts and bolts in one of the aisles predicting that given enough time and enough random interactions between these components, we will be launching a spaceship to Mars from where I live. In fact, just last week I found electrical components in another aisle. Given enough time they could self-assemble into computers for the spaceship! Just keep the faith!

It should go without saying that these organic compounds offer no insight into how the information in life arose. Indeed, the paper admits that it hasn't been demonstrated that the molecules found in this meteorite were important to the origin of life at all. As the PNAS paper states:
Could the type of compounds released from SM IOM have been significant for prebiotic evolution? The question is obviously hard to answer, given the utterly unknown nature of the chemical beginnings of life... (emphasis added)
Don't miss that last admission: the "the chemical beginnings of life" are "utterly unknown." Undeterred, Slate is running the headline that the meteorite contains the "Ingredients for Life." So again, why is this news? The political answer to that question is that origin-of-life theorists don't have a lot of good news to report these days, so finding some new organic molecules in a meteorite is a big deal.

Back in July a Science Daily story observed that "A working cell is more than the sum of its parts" because "A functioning cell must be entirely correct at once, in all its complexity." That's a fact. But origin-of-life theorists are getting excited about finding ambiguously important organic molecules in meteorites, showing just how far they are from explaining how life arose.

What's most interesting about this study, in other words, isn't what it actually reports by way of scientific discovery, but the fact that its meager discoveries are making headlines across the Internet. Compared to nothing, a little bit is...a lot.

Image: Fragments of Sutter's Mill meteorite/Wikipedia.