DID LIFE BEGIN WITH CLAY?
…and the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being… (The Book of Genesis, 2:7)
One of the most important mysteries confronting the human race is how the first life on Earth arose. Our founder, David Smith, will address this question in a soon-to-be-published book about what he calls “the stem cells of our planet”. He will argue that clay was the foundation for the genesis of life. The book, which is likely to be published by the end of this year, will explore the connections between religious belief and scientific fact.
Some of the most interesting research into this question was led by Dan Luo at Cornell University. His team of biochemists stumbled onto an important discovery after facing a practical problem. The team couldn’t afford the synthetic hydrogels needed to produce large amounts of proteins.
Hydrogels are substances with large numbers of microscopic spaces capable of absorbing liquids, much the way a sponge does. Over the eons of Earth’s history, some scientists say, chemicals isolated in such spaces could have performed complex reactions giving rise to DNA, proteins, and other components that make living cells possible. Fill the material with amino acids, certain enzymes, and other simple cellular machines, and you may have the building blocks for complex proteins which the DNA will encode, just as you would if you started with living cells. Later, Luo’s team realized that their discovery might answer century-old questions about how biological molecules evolved.
At first, Luo’s team used synthetic hydrogels, cell-free media. To produce enough proteins, though, the team needed a fairly large amount of it, which could become expensive. An assistant, Dayong Yang, noticed that clay formed a hydrogel when mixed with water. Why not use clay, then, he said? Luo noted that it was “dirt cheap”?
Some people can’t resist a pun.
The clay matrix brought an unexpected bonus: it actually enhanced protein production.
It occurred to Luo’s team that this discovery might be a clue about how the first biological molecules evolved. Carl Sagan and other prominent scientists had posited that the first such molecules were formed in the primordial oceans. The molecules would have drawn energy from volcanic vents or lightning strikes. They were in a harsh environment, though. How could they have combined often enough for assembly into more complex molecules? What would have protected them?
Previous generations of scientists had posited that the first cell membranes might have been supported by sacs of polymer or fat. Because DNA and amino acids are attracted to its surfaces, clay may have been the protective medium. Cytoplasm, the interior material of cells, has many of the properties of a hydrogel, and Luo’s team pointed out that clay is better than other substances at protecting such molecules from enzymes that might dismantle them.
Furthermore, clay first appeared about when the first biological protocells, incomplete cell-like structures, were formed. The geological record seems to support Luo’s theory.
There is more. In his forthcoming book, Mr. Smith will evaluate other scientific inquiries into the origin of life. He will compare these with various religious statements about how life began, and will explain the basis for his own conclusions.
Watch for the book. Expect it to answer your most important questions about this vital subject.