“Energy Harnessing” and Life’s Origin


Image source: Discovery Institute.

The latest animated video from Long Story Short, announced earlier today, is a high energy presentation. Literally so: it explains the energy requirements for life. Everyone knows that controlled life requires energy, but most do not appreciate the intricate steps required to harness it — to convert raw energy into a very and accessible form.

Absurd Claims About Energy

Hypothetical explanations for the origin of life (abiogenesis) fail to acknowledge the challenges of energy harnessing, leading to absurd claims about the role of energy at the start of life:

  • “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”1
  • “I think we have to think about some environment on the surface of the Earth, some kind of shallow lake or pond where the building blocks of RNA were made and accumulated, along with lipids and other molecules relevant to biology. And then they self-assembled into lipid vesicles encapsulating RNA, under conditions where the RNA could start to replicate, driven by energy from the sun.”2
  • “The formation of cells releases energy and increases overall entropy!”3
  • “The origin of life just requires some raw material that could allow the spark of life to emerge.”4

These abiogenesis advocates would like you to believe that simple, raw energy on a prebiotic earth (energy from lightning, sunlight, volcanoes, or hydrothermal vents) could synthesize information-packed biopolymers, initiate self-replication, and organize molecules within a membrane that could maintain homeostasis. The latest video from Long Story Short provides a substantial dose of reality.

Some Helpful Analogies

We know that gasoline contains raw energy. The energy can be released by a simple spark in the presence of oxygen, but the resulting fire or explosion produces predominantly destructive, nonspecific energy, not increased organization or complexity. To convert the raw energy for a constructive purpose, we must use the energy via complex machines. For example, a car precisely mixes gasoline with oxygen, optimally pressurizes the mixture, ignites it so that the increased pressure pushes a piston, and the piston rotates a shaft to propel the car. The many requirements of the car’s engine and drivetrain are essential to harness the energy for a useful purpose.

The sun provides a great quantity of raw energy. The sun can produce temperature gradients, evaporate liquids, and modify chemical bonds, but its energy is nonspecific and predominantly destructive. Similarly, earthquakes won’t organize your desk and lightning won’t match your socks. Again, complex machines are required to harness these forms of energy for more constructive purposes, like powering electric machines from sunlight via solar panels, transformers, regulators, and batteries.

Turning now to living organisms, plants overcome the predominantly degradative effects of sunlight via complex molecular machinery for photosynthesis, additional complex machinery for chemiosmotic coupling, and complex machinery to repair any molecular damage from uncontrolled, raw sunlight. However, plants are highly advanced forms of life.

What About the Simplest Life?

Even the simplest forms of life are maintained by highly specific energy harnessing. The universal foundation of energy harnessing is a process known as chemiosmotic coupling. In simple terms, chemiosmotic coupling involves three steps:

  1. Creation and maintenance of a proton gradient across a membrane. This generally occurs through stripping electrons off various forms of “food” (eg, hydrogen5,6iron7or the more familiar glucose) and passing them to an oxidizing agent, while harnessing a series of redox reaction steps to pump protons across a membrane.
  2. Allowing the protons back across the membrane only if they rotate an electric nanomotor known as ATP synthase. ATP synthase converts low energy ADP into high energy ATP. This is like recharging a multipurpose battery. The recharging of ADP into ATP is so rapid that an average human recharges his or her entire body weight’s worth of ATP each day.8
  3. Using ATP to power hundreds of molecular machines, each designed to couple with ATP and direct the energy towards a specific task such as replicating DNA, untangling DNA, repairing DNA, manufacturing proteins, recycling proteins, and transporting molecules across the membrane. Once ATP is discharged, the resulting ADP returns to ATP synthase for another round of charging.

These three steps are interdependent, because they together harness energy to maintain life, including harnessing the energy required for their own formation and maintenance. Most origin-of-life researchers dismiss the required complexity and causal circularity of energy harnessing by claiming that the earlier life somehow survived on raw energy and had plenty of time to evolve complex energy harnessing. In doing so, they are issuing a promissory note backed by the bankrupt treasury of natural selection. Somehow, lots of people are buying it.

In a future post, I will further detail the three steps of chemiosmotic coupling and address supposed pathways toward the evolution of energy harnessing.

References

  1. Jeremy England (physicist and research scientist at Georgia Tech). https://www.quantamagazine.org/a-new-thermodynamics-theory-of-the-origin-of-life-20140122/
  2. Jack Szostak (Nobel Prize-winning biologist, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard University, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, and an investigation in the department of molecular biology at Mass General Hospital). https://www.quantamagazine.org/how-could-life-evolve-from-cyanide-20220601/
  3. Bill Nye (science popularizer). Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. 2014, New York: Saint Martin’s Press, p. 285.
  4. Jones WJ, Donnelly MI, Wolfe RS. Evidence of a common pathway of carbon dioxide reduction to methane in methanogens. J Bacteriology. 1985: 163; 126-131.
  5. Nevin KP, Hensley SA, Franks AE et al. Electrosynthesis of organic compounds from carbon dioxide is catalyzed by a diversity of acetogenic microorganisms. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 2011: 77; 2882-2886.
  6. Malik L, Hedrich S. Ferric iron reduction in extreme acidophiles. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2002: 12; 818414.
  7. Lane N, The Vital Question. 2016, New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 63.

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