Thursday, May 22, 2008

More on crystals and the origin of life

Creationists like to take advantage of the origin of life question for several reasons. The greatest is that few scientists even are familiar with the current research, and so will often fail to be able to discuss it. However, in the movie "Expelled" the question was further obscured by dishonest reporting.

A creationist remarked on a public bulletin board that, "The best part was Dawkins in the end admitting that life could have been started by intelligent design (but couldn't possibly be the God of the Bible), that the intelligent designers had to be started by some kind of natural selection and then intelligently designed us. By their own words Dawkins and his associates looked like they have their own flying spaghetti monster called aliens or crystals, ..."

In the case of Dawkins, he was asked if there were any scenario he could imagine that would allow for an "intelligent designer?" The space alien response was in fact one frequently given by Intelligent Design creationist superstars such as William Dembski, and Mike Behe. Intelligent Design Creationists, in their effort to hide their actual religious origins theology, have often asserted that spacemen or time travelers could be the creators of life on earth. When these ideas have been discussed by actual scientists, they have been discarded as silly, unworkable, or meaningless. But they have been reincarnated by the creationists who then exploited this absurdity in the movie.

The contribution of minerals to the origin of life is laughed at by Stein when mentioned by Michael Ruse. The derision given to the idea that crystals contributed to the origin of life is an excellent example of how scientific ignorance is exploited by the producers of Expelled.

Consider for a moment, your bones are made from calcite- a crystal of calcium carbonate. Those bones and your teeth also need another crystal, apatite, or hydroxylcalcium phosphate. Marine shells are made from calcite and aragonite- both crystals. Plants, particularly grasses need silicon crystals called phytoliths to exist. The bodies of diatoms are mostly crystal silicon. Silicon or calcium crystals are found in nearly all life on earth. Another crystal of iron oxide, magnatite, is found in nearly all life on earth, even bacterial.

Clays are crystals and have been implicated in the origin of earth's life for decades, particularly the crystalline montmorillonite. Recent articles are;

Wang KJ, Ferris JP
2005 "Catalysis and selectivity in prebiotic synthesis: initiation of the formation of oligo(U)s on montmorillonite clay by adenosine-5'-methylphosphate." Orig Life Evol Biosph. Jun; 35(3): 187-212

Saladino R, Crestini C, Ciambecchini U, Ciciriello F, Costanzo G, Di Mauro E.
2004 "Synthesis and degradation of nucleobases and nucleic acids by formamide in the presence of montmorillonites." Chembiochem. Nov 5;5(11):1558-66

Martin M. Hanczyc, Shelly M. Fujikawa, and Jack W. Szostak
2003 "Experimental Models of Primitive Cellular Compartments: Encapsulation, Growth, and Division" Science October 24; 302: 618-622.

Studies of the earliest pre-biotic chemistry in the origin of life shows that interactions between mineral crystals and naturally occurring molecules leads to increased complexity, and more abundant yields. Here again we see an important role for the mineral calcite. Robert Hazen has studied the binding of amino acids to surface of calcite crystals and discovered that they are aligned according to their atomic configuration, or isomer. Another crystal, borate, stabilizes the naturally forming sugar ribose, which is an important molecule needed to form the cellular workhorse RNA. Finally, one of the most common creationist objections to origin of life research is their insistence that the famous Miller-Urey experiment was a failure. This 1953 experiment was the first to demonstrate that a simple energy source, an electrical spark, could induce the spontaneous formation of amino acids from a mixture of gasses. Creationist organization such as the Discovery Institute and the fundamentalist young earth creationists of Answers in Genesis Ministries all claim that the gasses used by Miller could not have been found on the early earth. Disregarding that this is untrue, Stanley Miller’s last paper (published after his death in 2007) demonstrated that the presence of the crystal calcite, and the iron crystal pyrite in the reaction leads to high yields of amino acids even from neutral gas mixtures.

Hazen, R.M., T.R. Filley, and G.A. Goodfriend.
2001 "Selective adsorption of L- and D-amino acids on calcite: Implications for biochemical homochirality." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98(May 8):5487.

Hazen, RM
2005 "Gen-e-sis" Washington DC: Joceph Henery Press

Ricardo, A., Carrigan, M. A., Olcott, A. N., Benner, S. A.
2004 "Borate Minerals Stabilize Ribose" Science January 9; 303: 196

Cleaves, H. James, John H. Chalmers, Antonio Lazcano, Stanley L. Miller, Jeffrey L. Bada
2008 “A Reassessment of Prebiotic Organic Synthesis in Neutral Planetary Atmospheres” Orig Life Evol Biosph (2008) 38:105–115

There are many more. Is it then silly, or irrational to think that these essential crystals were part of the origin of life? Not at all. Only the ignorant will be fooled by Stein et al and their propaganda movie.

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