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Abiogenesis as ineluctable ramification of primordial geochemical metastability [Apr. 20th, 2009|12:12 pm]

Saturday night, as I was having a little bit of a snack before bed, I started reading an article in American Scientist to keep my brain occupied while munching my ham sandwich. It turned out to be so interesting that rather than putting it aside when I was done eating to come back to at breakfast, I finished the whole thing right then and there. So I thought I'd put on my Popularizing Science hat and take a whack at summarizing it for my non-scientist friends.

It's about the origin of life. Waaaay back in the middle of the 20th century, Urey & Miller did some famous experiments where they showed that you can take chemicals from the early Earth's atmosphere, zot them with some electricity, and get amino acids and other organic molecules that are the building blocks of life.

The general scientific picture that then developed was that inorganic processes like lightning and UV radiation and so on create this primordial soup of organic chemicals, and at some point, by random chance, some of the chemicals come together to form a self-replicating system, and then everything else is an outgrowth of that one pivotal random event. Everything about life, the whole shebang, is basically a "frozen accident". Later Nobel-winning research by folks like Tom Cech simplifies things a little by suggesting RNA as the original replicator, because it can be both a product and a catalyst, so now you have an RNA-based world for a while before DNA develops, but it's still basically the same setup.

The AmSci article proposes that things went a little differently. The authors call it "metabolism first" and it basically boils down to this: chemical reactions can experience evolutionary selection well before you get anything that looks like a self-contained replicator. You don't have to start with something complicated like RNA -- that's a much later elaboration of the basic replicator, which is just a sequence of chemical reactions. You don't even need cells; this network of interactions happens in the cracks of porous rocks, or maybe in a layer of organic goop on the surface. It's nothing more than a collection of small molecules that catalyze the breakdown of high-energy molecules into lower-energy ones, making more of the catalyst molecules as a byproduct.

The analogy they give is a pool of water up at the top of a hill. Water wants to run downhill. When the pool starts to overflow, at first, you just get a small trickle of water coming over the edge, but that flow digs the channel a little deeper, which lets more water flow, and pretty soon the erosive feedback has cut a deep channel. The basic driver of the flow is the energy imbalance of all that water at the top of a hill. The primordial environment had an energy imbalance as well: ordinary geochemical processes produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which have lots of electrons in a high-energy state. You can lower their energy by combining H2 and CO2 to form water and acetate, but the reaction is very slow. So the electrons in those molecules are basically stuck at the top of a thermodynamic hill. Add some catalyst molecules, and a few electrons can flow "downhill" to a lower-energy state. If you produce more catalyst molecules in the process, it carves the channel a little deeper, more electrons flow downhill, and feedback amplification has the whole show off and running. (The thing that makes it complicated is that there are actually a bunch of different channels, and flow through channel A doesn't dig itself deeper, it deepens channel B, which connects two other pools halfway down the hill. The important thing is that the system as a whole is self-amplifying.)

What did this primitive chemical network look like? Well, at the core of all metabolism is the citric acid cycle, which you may remember from high-school biology as the Krebs cycle. It's a simple circular loop of reactions that's the starting point for all the biomolecular synthesis pathways. In the usual "forward" or oxidative mode, it uses oxygen to break down organic molecules into CO2 and water, creating high-energy electrons that get ferried off to drive other biochemical reactions. However, it can also run in reverse, in reductive mode, taking in geologically-produced high-energy electrons and using that energy to create complex organic molecules directly. And that's exactly how some anaerobic organisms use it. Given its simplicity, universal centrality, and match to the early environment, the authors of the article think that the citric acid cycle is probably where it all started.

So that's all kind of interesting, but it's not what makes the new idea really cool. It's the philosophical implications.

The problem with the standard view of life as a "frozen accident" is that it relies on chance. It was just random luck that at some point, various molecules happened to come together in just the right way to produce something interesting that persisted and grew.

This is... dissatisfying from a scientific point of view. It's aesthetically discordant with what we have learned about how the world works. Science is all about reproducibility and universality, and recognizing that things here are the same as things there because the rules are universal. Special circumstances are not required to explain what we see. Now, that doesn't mean it's not true; given enough throws of the dice, even very unlikely events become probable, so in a large enough universe, that lucky accident was bound to happen somewhere, and wherever it was, that's where we'd be to see it, right? But still, the notion... itches.

Metabolism First turns that whole picture on its head. In this scenario, biology is not a fortuitous accident of chemistry, fighting against the thermodynamic odds to come into existence; rather, it is an utterly unsurprising, perhaps inevitable consequence of the geochemical circumstances of the primordial earth. Biology isn't a superfluous result, it's a necessary one.

From a thermodynamic perspective, life can look a bit unlikely. The arrow of time disorders things and smooths them out, while living systems are these complicated lumps of lowered entropy. But that's just near equilibrium; very far from equilibrium, the arrow points the other direction, creating localized order that speeds the flow downhill toward balance.

Under Metabolism First, life isn't weird at all. Life is totally normal. We should expect life, or something like it, to arise wherever we find circumstances like those of the early Earth. Anywhere you have wide-ranging conditions of strong metastability, thermodynamics will drive complexifying life-like processes to move it toward equilibrium.

We are not special or unusual; the Earth does not hold a unique position at the center of a barren and empty universe. Everything is like this. This is how things work. We're just one expression of a cosmic pattern encoded deep in the very laws of reality. The universe plays dice, but the dice are loaded. The system wants to be interesting.

Wouldn't that be a fascinating universe to live in? I think that it may well be where we do live, which is just... awesome. In every sense of the word.

[User Picture]From: dcseain
2009-04-20 06:44 pm (UTC)
I wonder if i should be concerned that "Abiogenesis as ineluctable ramification of primordial geochemical metastability" actually means something to me. OTOH, i started out in genetics and recombinant DNA, so i guess i would understand.
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[User Picture]From: annlarimer
2009-04-20 07:30 pm (UTC)
Magic. Got it.
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[User Picture]From: lignota
2009-04-20 07:59 pm (UTC)
Very cool!
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[User Picture]From: navrins
2009-04-20 08:19 pm (UTC)
I'm having some difficulty piecing out exactly what the difference is between the two views you're proposing.

One interpretation I can make is that you find it hard to accept that we are the process of a one-in-a-million chance, even knowing that there were so many billions and billions of circumstances that one-in-a-million chances should be considered normal and common and even inevitable. But that doesn't quite seem to be thought process you're describing.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2009-04-20 08:48 pm (UTC)
In the frozen accident view, the existence of life is a statistical outlier. It's a very unlikely event that requires an enormous number of trials to have a decent chance of happening. Once it does happen, it then explodes in a way that completely takes over and transforms its surrounding environment. So you get a special localized environment that is vastly different than everything else, and we just happen to be in the middle of it.

This is certainly plausible, and may in fact be what happened, but it's sort of suspiciously egocentric. It just has a resonance with ideas like the geocentric solar system and the Great Chain of Being that makes you narrow your eyes and go hmm...

Whereas in the metabolism first view, the existence of life (though maybe not as we know it) is not unusual, it's standard. Restart the Earth with a different random number seed and you'd get something strange and unrecognizable but still alive, because it's a natural outgrowth of those circumstances. It's not an anomaly, it's an expression of fundamental dynamics.

Which just seems to fit more neatly, more harmoniously, with the rest of the edifice of scientific understanding. That's an idea that has connections in all the right places to be an essential piece of the entire structure, rather than being some kind of weird outbuilding tacked onto the backside of the garage.
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[User Picture]From: navrins
2009-04-20 09:00 pm (UTC)
Except, it had an enormous number of trials. It took about a billion years before life got started on Earth (alleged facts according to wikipedia). A billion years is plenty of time for all kinds of statistical outliers to happen. The universe has been around for a long, long time.

If it only takes one freakishly unlikely thing to happen to get life started on any given planet, but once that freakishly unlikely thing happens, it keeps on going... and you sit around waiting billions of years for that freakishly unlikely thing to happen... it seems entirely reasonable (though admittedly counterintuitive) that by this time, we'd be surrounded with the results of those freakishly unlikely things.

But I think I've gone off onto a tangent. I didn't really mean to ask why you find the "frozen accident" view less plausible than the "metabolism first" view (although I was also curious about that). What I really meant to ask is how the "metabolism first" view is actually any different from the "frozen accident" view. Are they just a different ways of looking at the same sequence of events, or are they actually different proposed sequences of events? If the latter, how exactly do they differ?
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2009-04-20 10:20 pm (UTC)
Maybe. A billion years is plenty of time for an event to happen with frequency 1e-15/sec. It's nowhere near enough if it's more like 1e-40 or 1e-400. Combinatorics explode really fast, which sets the upper limit for how complex the ur-replicator can be fairly low, though there may be important formation dynamics that we don't yet understand. Ribozymes are fairly easy to create in the lab, but they're still pretty big.

Anyway, the difference is basically this:

With replicator first, you have all these monomers floating around in the soup forming random polymer chains until, by chance, you get one that catalyzes its own formation, and away it goes, turning soup into copies of itself.

With metabolism first, the autocatalytic molecules are very small and simple -- just 4-6 carbon atoms and about as many oxygen. What's important is not structure, but how they interact. Basically, the first replicator is not a molecule, but a dynamic: what's reproducing and evolving is the set of chemical pathways that build organic molecules from simpler constituents by shuttling electrons "downhill" energetically.
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[User Picture]From: helava
2009-04-20 11:47 pm (UTC)
Still, this whole "life as inevitable consequence" still only makes things fit within the context that, "Hey, Earth = perfect for life!" which makes it such that *even if* life is essentially the inevitable consequence of things on Earth, it's STILL a one-in-a-hojillion sort of occurrence.

Seems to me like the only real difference in this view is that in the "frozen accident" view, the unlikely event is the development of life on Earth, and in the other view, it's the development of Earth, then the inevitable consequences of the particulars of the planet.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2009-04-21 12:26 am (UTC)
Not at all. I think it means that not only will you get life everywhere that's like Earth, you'll also get something functionally similar to life everywhere that you have metastability in far-from-equilibrium conditions. It may not be things that are recognizable as analogs of plants and animals, but you'll get systems of evolving, reproducing low-entropy structures wherever you have those kinds of thermodynamic conditions because they are a creation of those conditions.
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[User Picture]From: flwyd
2009-04-24 01:19 am (UTC)
To me, the appeals of metabolism first include the life process starting several times on Earth, and then merging or having the best life process win out. With frozen accidents, you have a very fragile starting point. Not only does lightning have to strike the right place at the right time, but that replicating thing then needs to not get squished by some lava. Metabolism first lets you keep trying without making your odds seem even odder.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-20 08:44 pm (UTC)
Of course I can't cite jack squat, but I seem to remember there being some evidence that there wasn't a single origin of life (i.e. The Lightning Strike) but rather several different origins of life at separate areas that eventually expanded into one another. This theory makes that seem much more plausible... even necessarily so. If the process was natural and expected we should expect that it happened in at least a few separate areas.

The thing that blew my mind back a few years was the realization that mitochondria and chloroplasts are probably unique life forms that ancient cells absorbed in a kind of enslavement (or to be more kind, symbiosis). It's like Jonah and the whale, except Jonah keeps feeding the whale so the whale doesn't swallow him.

Life is cool/spooky/weird/fascinating.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2009-04-21 04:10 am (UTC)
You are awesome. In every sense of the word.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2009-04-21 04:28 am (UTC)
Aw, shucks. *kicks ground*

Thanks! :D
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[User Picture]From: shirtlifterbear
2009-04-21 07:52 am (UTC)
I agree that Metabolism First seems viscerally satisfying.

I just seems... easier, somehow, than the Single Lightning Stroke, not inevitable, but somehow an easier slide into the Organic realm...

Excellent post!
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[User Picture]From: drdeleto
2009-04-21 02:40 pm (UTC)
Aesthetically (the only way I'm really qualified to judge), this seems very agreeable to me, too. It seems like consciousness would similarly emerge from life the way life emerges from matter in this view--at least analogously, if not literally. The innate capacity for one system (chemicals, a living organism) to establish a self-perpetuating feedback loop can basically create a new layer of order on top of the old stuff. And that new layer of order has a new dimension of dynamism.

One question: Can you define "metastability" for me?
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2009-04-21 03:48 pm (UTC)
It seems like consciousness would similarly emerge from life the way life emerges from matter in this view

Yes! Although I have nothing to back it up, I feel similarly. The question then is, what's the next layer up?

Metastability is when you have a situation that's locally stable but globally unstable. For example, a ball resting in a shallow dip at the top of a large hill. If you give it a small nudge, it'll roll around a bit but return to its local equilibrium at the bottom of the dip. Give it a bigger nudge and it rolls over the lip and all the way down the hill.
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[User Picture]From: backrubbear
2009-04-25 05:03 pm (UTC)
The satisfying bit of this for me is that it involves the complexity being lifted out of the molecular level and being moved into a far greater systemic level. For this to work, the complexity is spread out across a bigger system and thus requires fewer things to happen at the microscopic level.

Chaos magicians will find this very amusing.
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