Fascinating Nick Lane public lecture: Energy and Matter at the origin of life

Very fascinating presentation, and some intriguing results:

Also, contrast how Nick Lane speaks about his research on the origin of life with how creationists like James Tour claim the field is presented to the public.


Thank you I’ll listen to it.

Just as a quick recap I’d like to see if this talk addresses issues that were raised by dr. Tour, or if dr. Lane talks about a completely different set of problems. To that end, it would be good if I gave a list of the problems, before I watch this talk, at least the ones that I remember.

  1. Lack of consideration for stereochemistry.
  2. Lack of consideration for chiral chemistry.
  3. Lack of cosideration for the artificiality of lab experiments, in particular
    *the fine-tuning of reaction parameters to an extreme degree (each reaction in a prebiotic study has approximately 5 fine-tuned parameters/conditions)
    *the divergence of reaction parameters (reactions that supposedly follow one-another are performed in very different conditions)
    *many reaction chains that get tested are not delivered “in situ” but instead the desired reaction products are taken from a pure stock (lack of consideration for the existense/nonexistence of natural processes of purification)

That’s off the top of my head, but I’m sure there were other concerns as well. I hope that removing the inflammatory language of dr. Tour will make this debate more pallatable for some of you.

That would be the same thing by two different names.

Right, but reality has “fine tuned parameters”. Right now, this very moment, outside my apartment, the air has some actual specific temperature, the air has some actual specific concentration of different atmospheric gases, and some actual specific amount of UV flux(for example).

Now if I were to go into a laboratory to perform an experiment simulating these conditions, I would have to design the experiment and “fine tune” my instruments to reproduce that temperature, that concentration of gases, and that amount of UV. Does that mean my simulated conditions are therefore artificial, or unnatural, or unlikely? No, obviously not. After all, those very conditions I got from observing a real natural environment. It’s difficult to conceive of a way to simulate a natural environment without having to do SOME sort of adjustment to ensure that my experiment is actually LIKE the natural environment. One can’t just stand around and wait for a volcano to erupt in the lab in order to test “what could happen”. You have to actually try to mimick the basic conditions produced by the volcano, like how much heat it puts out, the gases it makes in the requisite concentrations, and so on and so forth. Is that “fine tuning” that makes the conditions artificial and unnatural? Obviously not.

It’s just not clear to me how this “fine tuning” objection makes sense in the context of experiments in geochemistry. The whole point is to test what would happen under certain conditions if those were to obtain somewhere in nature.

*many reaction chains that get tested are not delivered “in situ” but instead the desired reaction products are taken from a pure stock (lack of consideration for the existense/nonexistence of natural processes of purification)

This objection makes more sense to me and is a much more serious point. I think it is important to actually simulate more realistic reaction mixtures and see what they achieve. They actually do this in the kinds of experiments performed by Nick Lane’s group and others.
If you listen to the talk, Nick Lane actually talks about that specific point. He shows some results of such experiments, where more “natural” reaction mixtures were simulated, and it turns out those were actually more conducive to the formation of fatty acid vesicles under a wider range of conditions, than the more “pure” version using an unrealistic solution only containing a single type of molecule.

No, stereochemistry is about the “shape” of a molecule. Molecules are usually displayed in a plane in 2d but in reality some of the atoms are above of this 2d plane while others are below it. The same molecule may have different ways in hich it can be bent, and The same molecule may react differently if it is bent in a different way.
Stereochemistry is also about the different possible stereoisomeric products of a given reaction.

Chiral chemistry is different. Some atoms in a complex molecule act as hubs where a mirrored counterpart of a molecule may be produced. A complex molecule of say 20 atoms may have three or four such places.
Chiral chemistry is about the different possible mirrored products of a given reaction.

Ok one more
*lack of consideration for the time-sensitivity of many if not all possible prebiotic reactions.

Which would make it chiral if the arrangement could me mirrored one the opposite side of the plane, which is why chirality is a subset of stereochemistry.

In any case, one important aspect of the scenario advocated by Nick Lane and colleagues is they do very different kinds of experiments than the types envisioned by people like Donald Sutherland, Jack Szostak and others.

They don’t start with pure chemicals like hydrogen cyanide and formamide and perform multi-step chemistry on them moving the products around, purifying or treating them and so on. Instead they really do try to simulate a known natural environment: The formation and chemistry of an alkaline hydrothermal vent in the Hadean ocean.

But he also says those experiments have been very technically challenging to perform(and so they actually haven’t been able to perform them accurately in the way they want), because to truly mimick the Earth’s oceans accurately and realistically, as they are thought to have been like by geologists about 4 billion yeas ago, requires both making it relatively hot but also highly pressurized, otherwise they can’t dissove hydrogen in the water as it is on the bottom of the ocean inside these vent systems and deep in the Earth’s crust(even today).
But pressurizing a high-temperature water system containing hydrogen gas up here on the surface is actually quite dangerous as it can explode.

Nature doesn’t have this problem of course, as the pressure on the sea bottom can’t suddenly suffer explosive decompression and accidentally ignite the hydrogen down there. The whole ocean rests on top of it.
But up here on the surface, the pressurized system can decompress into the surrounding air which has much lower relative pressure, and the hydrogen can react with oxygen in the atmosphere and create a literal fire explosion. So they are only now beginning to put the kinds of equipment together that can properly do these experiments safely. That equipment has taken time to acquire and money to pay for, and so on and so forth.


Ok. I think his examples were representative of two subgroups of stereoisomers


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Great point. This was striking to me when I read an article by Stephen Freeland who wrote this piece at BioLogos (compared to other creationists).

Nick Lane inspired me to work on a small paper regarding how my work on nanometer sized channels could play a role in some of the chemical reactions that are difficult to occur spontaneously and could even serve as a primitive chemiosmotic coupler. But of course lets just say "hah you guys can’t explain all this stuff so its evidence that an intelligent designer did it all."

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To the question of what is life I propose the definitions of Tibor Gánti are quite useful; i.e. “a “chemoton” is a molecular machine that has all the properties of life”, and is therefore a possible model for a minimalistic cell.

See page 119 for a detailed discussion.

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