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Hundred million years are not enough for the origin of life on earth

The Feathered Onion - Creation of Life in the Universe.
by Clive Trotman
John Wiley & Sons, 2004. Paperback. 254 pages.

reviewed by Gert Korthof, 21 Nov 2004 (update 3 Jul 2006)

Trotman bookcover

Who's afraid of irreducible complexity?

    This book defends the panspermia hypothesis (life came from space) in an original way. The panspermia hypothesis is known from the astronomers Fred Hoyle & Wickramasinghe. An important difference however is that Trotman is a biologist and focussed on the biological reasons why life could not originate on Earth. One of the reasons is that all life, including the first forms of life, is irreducibly complex.
 

Summary

 
"Traces of the earliest forms of life on Earth reveal that they were already highly complex, consisting of cells, genes, proteins and an intricate metabolism. Life at the biochemical level was in many ways as complex in those early organisms as it is today, which leaves us with a massive gap in our knowledge about how life got started in a relatively short space of time. We know that evolution takes million of years to complete even small changes in animals and plants. Can we really accept that the transition from simple chemicals to primitive yet complex life forms occurred in such a short time-span ." (summary on the flap)
      Trotman's answer to the above question is: No, not enough time! Very probably life came from space. The universe is 10 billion years old. That gives us a hundredfold increase in available time. At least we cannot exclude the possibility. So we must include it in our theories of the origin of life.
 
 

The time window: 100 million years?

  According to Trotman the conclusion is difficult to escape: life existed 3.8 billion years ago (17). Almost 'as soon' as the young earth cooled down sufficiently. That means, if life originated on earth, it had only 100 million years to evolve from chemical building blocks. The evidence is based on signatures of life in rocks from West Greenland. Recently, however, that evidence has been attacked, if not refuted. The ancient Greenland rocks have not yet produced any compelling evidence for the existence of life by 3.8 billion years ago (16). Since these fossils are claimed to be the oldest traces of life, Trotman's too-short-time-window now seems less convincing. According to others only the evidence that life existed 2.7 billion years ago is strong (that is 1.1 billion years after the end of the late heavy bombardment) and evidence for life in older rocks is progressively weaker (18).
 
 

Life's not simple

 

Chapter 5, "Life's not simple", is the most exciting chapter. It bears the thought-provoking motto "Life on Earth has always been complex". This idea contradicts mainstream biological thinking (15). The chapter could have been called 'Life on earth is irreducible complex'.
Trotman defines the minimal biochemistry of primitive life as: protein synthesis machinery, photosynthesis (chlorophyll), respiration (cytochrome) and ATP-synthase. These 4 subsystems are necessary to run a living cell. Photosynthesis (chlorophyll) must have been present 3.8 billion years ago. Those cells must also have respiration (one cannot do without it). That's why plants are metabolically more complex than animals! However, to perform photosynthesis and respiration a cell needs hundreds of proteins. To produce those proteins (enzymes) the cell needs as many genes (DNA). To synthesise DNA, the cell needs to produce the DNA components from basic chemicals (with the help of enzymes). To translate those genes into proteins, the cell needs an elaborate protein synthesis machinery (ribosomes). The ribosomes themselves are constructed from proteins! These interdependent subsystems (13) must have been present in the earliest photosynthetic single-celled organisms. Hence: "Life on Earth has always been complex". Yet, in the next chapters Trotman explains how life originated in a natural way.
 

 

Thanks to thermodynamics

  If life was never simple, how did it start? "Life came together not on earth and not in the past 4 billion years, but throughout all the space and time of the universe". We see again the recurring theme of irreducible complexity, necessitating extra-terrestrial origin of life. If life was never simple by definition, then the exact definition of life becomes important (see paragraph The definition of life).
   Trotman argues that "the laws of thermodynamics do not work against the origin and existence of life but overwhelmingly in its favour". This is because all matter has thermal motion, so molecules move rapidly, collide and interact. In this chapter he describes also how pre-cellular chemistry could be speeded up without the help of enzymes and membranes. With this scenario, who needs panspermia? In a next stage cells and enzymes speeded up life without the help of external physical conditions. How proteins with high catalytic activity evolved is discussed, refuting the claims of intelligent designer theorists. Trotman claims that "The evolution of life's chemistry happened in the 10 billion years before the Earth existed". I wonder how "life's chemistry" and in what form has been transported to the Earth.
 
 

A Non-Event

  In chapter 7 (Non-Event) he argues life appeared gradually. "Highly complex life could not have appeared suddenly and therefore appeared gradually". This seems to contradict his main claim 'Life was never simple', but now I understand we should read this as 'life on earth was always complex'.
First life must have been  s l o w . Today's life is high-speed life because enzymes speed up chemical reactions a million times. It is good to see that all reactions occurring in a cell are natural chemical reactions, which also run outside a cell (3). There is no 'vital force' making them possible. "Every one of life's reactions was capable of happening before its enzyme appeared". Perfect enzymes where not available then, hence: slow life again. The first proteins had feeble catalytic activities. The cell is a late innovation. Before that period there was cell-less chemistry. I could add: First life must have been inefficient energetically, because efficient energy harvesting and storage is complex.
Trotman's arguments for panspermia, such as the slow accumulation of constituents of the organic soup (2), the slowness of pre-cellular life, the irreducible complexity of early life on earth and the fast appearance of life on earth are beginning to make sense. Pre-cellular life is slow-motion-life and that sort of life needs more time than the available hundred million years.
 

Spreading the message

  Chapter 8 ("Spreading the message") is about panspermia: interplanetary and interstellar transport of "not necessarily viable life-forms, but components of life". And further "possibly complete life in the form of viable spores" [my emphasis]. I expected a much stronger claim in this chapter, because the interplanetary or interstellar transport of cells to the earth seems to be crucial in Trotman's theory. Chemical components are not enough! Even genes are not enough! Does Trotman really imply that chlorophyll, haemoglobin, cell membranes, ribosomes, DNA bases, and even cells are transported to the earth? If he would make this sort of specific claims, I could check the implications and the plausibility of the panspermia hypothesis. Are chlorophyll, haemoglobin, etc adapted to conditions specific for the Earth or are these molecules truly universal and could they have functioned on completely different planets? Anyway, there was no lack of the necessary ingredients of life on planet Earth. Did the Earth really lack only time? At this time nobody can calculate how long it takes to transform chemistry into life.
    There is circumstantial evidence in favour of Trotman's panspermia. For example, the appearance of first life on Earth is, geologically speaking, 'soon' after the end of the meteorite bombardment (12). This timing is compatible with, but does not prove that, meteorites contributed to the origin of life on Earth. Alternatively, it could mean that only after the end of meteorite bombardment conditions were good enough for life to originate and survive. The panspermia hypothesis has the advantage that the universe is older than the earth. So there is more time for the origin of life. However, the delivery of life has its own time window. The delivery time must be around the end of the meteorite bombardments (4000 million years ago). The lucky cell that became the ancestor of life on earth, must have been transported to the earth at the end of the bombardments. Life would not have survived when it arrived in the middle of the bombardments period. So, panspermia theory has to explain a delay of at least 100 - 200 million years until the first traces of life appeared in the rocks of the earth. Even the more, because the first transported and surviving cell must have been a cell capable of replication (11). It is a mystery why it took so long to multiply itself and to leave traces in the geological record. And then there is Strickberger's objection (4).
 

Definition of life

  There is no explicit definition of life in Trotman. He seems to prefer a 'material dependent' definition of life. Figure 5.1 on page 98 symbolises this view of the essence of life on earth: the twin activities of synthesis and oxidation. Life essentially depends on oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, cytochrome, chlorophyll. Photosynthesis and chlorophyll seem to be part of the definition of first life, so his 'definition' of life not only seems to be 'material-dependent' but also dependent on early plant life (excluding animal life). We find typical statements such as "The foundation reaction of life may well have been the splitting of water with solar energy", which is an activity of plant life. I did not expect such a terrestrial and material-dependent definition of life from a panspermist! A material-independent definition is favoured by astrobiologist Radu Popa (6) and chemical engineer Tibor Gánti (7). A material-independent definition uses abstract concepts like 'energy', 'metabolism', 'information', 'reproduction', 'boundary'. Gánti uses an abstract model, the chemoton, which is able to represent any type of living system, including extraterrestrial ones. And, according to Trotman, life on earth is extraterrestrial.
   Finally, if irreducible complexity is part of the definition of life, then the claim that "most simple life is not simple" is true by definition.
 
 

Panspermia and neo-Darwinism

  Astronomers Hoyle & Wickramasinghe are panspermists and attack neo-Darwinism (8,9,10). An extreme example is R. Joseph's Astrobiology, the origin of life, and the death of Darwinism. However, as is clear form Trotman's book, panspermia does not necessarily reject neo-Darwinism. Panspermia is about the origin of life and Darwinism is about the origin of species. Darwinism does not necessarily imply that life originated on Earth. That's why Trotman does not need to attack neo-Darwinism. Despite compatibility of neo-Darwinism and panspermia, mainstream science does not embrace panspermia. Trotman is not a dogmatic-panspermist. I guess he would reject panspermia when scientists discovered how life could originate on earth within the 100 million years window.
 
 

Conclusion

  I agree with Trotman's main claim that the earliest forms of life on earth must have been irreducibly complex (5). Irreducible Complexity does not imply a designer, because it describes the state of a system, not its origin. Trotman argues for an extraterrestrial origin of life without attacking neo-Darwinism. However, panspermia is not accepted by mainstream science because of the uncertainties of dating first life on earth and the uncertainties about the time needed for the origin of life. The Feathered Onion is far more than a defence of panspermia. Trotman's book is a courageous, ingenious and successful attempt to identify irreducible complexity as the essence of life, without resorting to intelligent design. The book itself is a pleasure to read, well designed, and accessible. High value, low price. Publishers, please more books of this design!
 

       Notes  

  1. "A leading geochemist Heinrich Holland remarked: the most reasonable interpretation of the data is surely that life existed on earth more than 3.85 billion years ago. Not only this, but life may even have discovered the trick of photosynthesis." (page 35); And: "But the most startling point is that LUCA [Last Universal Common Ancestor] herself could use oxygen to generate energy nearly 4 billion years ago. She clearly knew how to cope with oxygen, and probably made use of a haemoglobin-like protein", page 168 Nick Lane (2002) OXYGEN. The Molecule that made the World.
  2. Hubert Yockey (1992) Information theory and molecular biology claimed there is no evidence for primordial organic soup.
  3. This was an important point of Tibor Ganti.
  4. Strickberger (2000) Evolution. third edition. "A serious obstacle is the vastness of space that would disperse these spores so widely that their chance of reaching the Earth seems infinitesimally small" (page 118). See also Feedback.
  5. John Maynard Smith writes that photosynthesis could not occur in the first cells, because it requires complex and highly evolved proteins. (The Origins of Life, p.55)
  6. Radu Popa (2004) Between Necessity and Probability: Searching for the Definition and Origin of Life.
  7. Tibor Gánti (2003) The Principles of Life. However, the book is expensive. Trotman's book is recommended for those who cannot afford Tibor Gánti (2003).
  8. Fred Hoyle (1999) Mathematics of Evolution, a review on this site.
  9. Fred Hoyle (1983) The Intelligent Universe, a review on this site.
  10. Chandra Wickramasinghe (2001): Cosmic Dragons. Life and Death on our Planet, describes how life could be transported to the earth, but he is not interested in neo-Darwinism (how life evolved). He is not interested in how life originated either. He is only interested in how life was transported to the Earth (by comets).
  11. It is likely that the cells transported by meteorites knew already how to replicate. How else could huge quantities of cells for transport in space be produced?
  12. According to Lynn Margulis the first bacteria appeared 3,900 millions of years ago on earth ( What is life?,1995, p.66). According to Walter Keller(1999), however there is 600 million year time window for the emergence of life on earth (Science, 30 July 1999, 668-669).
  13. The interdependence of parts can be found in the Evolution textbook of Peter Skelton (1993): "Here lies a real problem for theories about the origin of life, because how could such a complex system as a cell, with such a high degree of interdependence between its parts, ever have arisen?"
  14. Christian de Duve (2005) The onset of selection, Nature, 433, 581-582, 10 Feb 2005.
  15. "Ridley begins the book by pointing out that for most of approximately four billion years that life has existed on Earth, it was anything but complicated. In fact, for an amazingly long time life existed as little more than one-celled organisms that lacked a nucleus. He goes on to explain how complexity was finally able to evolve" [my emphasis] writes Lynda Delph in a review of Mendel's Demon, Science (29 June 2001). Of course what she means is that bacteria are relatively simple when compared with multicellular animals. But bacteria are certainly complex seen from the point of view of the origin of life. 5 Mar 2005
  16. Stephen Moorbath (2005) "Dating earliest life", Nature, 434, 155, 10 March 2005.
  17. P Ehrenfreund et al 2002 Astrophysical and astrochemical insights into the origin of life Reports on Progress in Physics 65 1427-1487. First life estimate: 3.90 - 3.85 billion years ago. "Recent modelling of the Earth's early atmosphere suggests, in contrast, more neutral conditions (e.g. H2O, N2, CO2), thus, precluding the formation of significant concentrations of prebiotic organic compounds." "Finally, organic compounds may have been delivered to the Earth by asteroids, comets and smaller fragments, such as meteorites and interplanetary dust particles."
  18. Kevin W. Plaxco & Michael Gross (2006) Astrobiology : A Brief Introduction, p.146,166,169.

       Further Reading  
  • Clive Trotman (2004) Unintelligent Design, Biologist, Autumn 2004, number (3), The Final Frontier, Institute of Biology.
  • Clive Trotman (1998) Life: all the time in the world? Biologist 45, 76-80. April 1998, number (2).
  • Nick Lane (2002) "Oxygen. The Molecule that made the World.", Oxford University Press. An invaluable resource.
  • Does Irreducible Complexity refute neo-Darwinism?. Michael Behe uses the concept irreducible complexity in the context of Darwinian evolution. To my knowledge he did not use it in the context of the origin of life.
  • COSMIC ANCESTRY by Brig Klyce. Life comes from space because life comes from life.
  • Robert Shapiro (1986) Origins. A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. There are remarks in this book that point to irreducible complexity: "Genes and enzymes are linked together in a living cell - two interlocked systems, each supporting the other. It is difficult to see how either could manage alone." (p. 138, Chapter: The chicken or the egg). However, the theme is not as elaborated as in Trotman. 17 Dec 04
  • Stuart Kauffman (1995) At home in the universe. For Kauffman the existence of and the causes of minimal complexity are very important. "All living things seem to have a minimal complexity below which it is impossible to go." p.42. "This threshold is not an accident of random variation and selection; I hold that it is inherent to the very nature of life." (p.43). 17 Dec 04
  • A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985,1995) Seven Clues to the Origin of Life. Cairns-Smith quite nicely describes irreducible complexity without using the word: "Less clear is how a gradual step-by-step evolution can lead to a system in which everything depends on everything"(p.39). Chapter 8 "Missing pieces" contains a beautiful description of irreducible complexity without using the word. Furthermore, he adds an explanation for its origin! 17 Dec 04
  • Christian de Duve (2002) Life evolving. Molecules, Mind and Meaning. Remarkably, de Duve recognised minimal complexity of the first cells, the time window of 100 million years, but did not conclude that the time window was too short! "The metabolism of the common ancestor must have involved at least several hundred distinct chemical reactions..."; "the last common ancestor of all life on Earth may not have been very different from some present-day bacterium" (p.42). This is in perfect agreement with Trotman. However, de Duve concludes: "There is no proof that the emergence of life must have required hundreds of millions of years" (p.46) ... it could take only a few thousand years (!). [In my opinion neither position has been proved yet, although life-originated-on-earth is mainstream science]. Trotman devoted a whole chapter to minimal complexity, de Duve only a paragraph. 19 Dec 04
    In a recent essay in Nature (14) de Duve argues that the hypothesis of natural selection in the RNA-world 'almost mandates the existence of primitive cells'. This example and others in his essay highlight Trotman's dilemma that first life was complex from the beginning. The advantage of Trotman is that he discusses the dilemma explicitly and gives it a name, while others only pay superficial attention. 10 Feb 05
  • Eörs Szathmary (2005) In search of the simplest cell, Nature, 433, 469-470, 3 Feb 2005. Two remarks in this article point to the existence of 'irreducible complexity' of the simplest cell: "Top-down approaches [stripping] seem to point to a minimum genome size of slightly more than 200 genes"; and "All putative [minimal] cells will have a genetic code and a means of transcribing and translating that code. Given the complexity of this system [!], it is difficult to believe, that the simplest living chemical system could have had these components". The minimum genome size of 200 itself points to the existence of 'minimal complexity'. 14 Feb 05
  • John W. Valley (2005) A Cool Early Earth? Scientific American, October 2005, pp.40-47. Our planet might not have spent its first half a billion years drenched in magma. Oceans, proto-continents and opportunities for life may have formed much earlier. 8 Oct 2005
  • David Warmflash and Benjamin Weiss (2005) Did Life Come from Another World? New research indicates that microorganisms could have survived a journey from Mars to Earth. Scientific American Nov 2005 pp.40-47. 12 Nov 2005
  • Richard Robinson (2005) Jump-Starting a Cellular World: Investigating the Origin of Life, from Soup to Networks. PLoS Biology www.plosbiology.org Feature Open access, freely available online November 2005 Volume 3 Issue 11 1860-1863
  • Philipp Baaske et al (2007) 'Extreme accumulation of nucleotides in simulated hydrothermal pore systems', PNAS, published online May 9, 2007. "We describe a robust and efficient solution to the concentration problem, based on heat currents in porous mineral precipitates. (...) We find extreme accumulation of molecules in a wide variety of plugged pores. The mechanism is able to provide highly concentrated single nucleotides, suitable for operations of an RNA world at the origin of life. (...) Our results indicate that, for life to evolve, complicated active membrane transport is not required for the initial steps."
  • Gert Korthof (2013) The Koonin threshold for the Origin of Life on Earth is a discussion of Koonin's solution to the Origin of Life enigma. 3 Sep 2013

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Copyright ©G. Korthof 2004 First published: 21 Nov 2004 Updated: 3 Jul 2006 Notes/FR: 3 Sep 2013