Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey


On Space Cattle and Looking for the Origin of Life

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part IV

Space Cattle Image

Space Cattle Mash-up by Terry Bailey

Okay, so a couple of posts ago we left Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago, in 1952, trying to create chemical reactions that would simulate Jupiter's atmosphere. They were doing this because it was thought that Jupiter's current atmosphere might closely resemble the atmosphere on early Earth. And the reason they wanted to simulate Earth in its early days was so they might see what conditions were present that led to the emergence of life.

The goal here, remember, was to figure out the origin of life. What kind of environment would be required for life to begin, and what might "spark" life.

Miller and Urey took molecules known to be present in Jupiter's 1950's atmosphere and placed them into a closed system. The gas molecules they used were methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and water (H2O). Then they ran an electric current through the contained gases, to simulate lightning storms believed to be common in the early days of Earth's formation. What they had accomplished was to simulate the presumed atmospheric environment of Early Earth. And, remember from our previous discussion with scientist Sherwood Chang, they were looking for some sort of chemical reaction ( a chemical reaction results from something - in this case, gas molecules - reacting with a source of energy - in this case, faked lightening).

So, qué pasó? Well, the scientific journals describe it a bit more scientifically, but I like what Sherwood Chang said to me: "At the end of one week, they fished out what was left in the pot and made the astounding discovery of the presence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and therefore of life!"

At week's end as much as 10-15% of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids. (source duke.edu) And, also according to Chang, "Three or four of the amino acids they found - in the pot - were the very specific amino acids that all biology uses. Out of a potentially almost limitless number of amino acids that are theoretically possible.   Most importantly, The Miller-Urey experiment showed that organic compounds such as amino acids could be made easily under the conditions that scientists believed to be present on  Early Earth.

Today most of us don't realize how big this was. Not just that the scientists "created" the building blocks of life but that they had been able to study something so successfully in a laboratory using a technique of simulation. We take simulations for granted today. But in the 1950s this was huge. And the Miller-Urey experiment resulted in an avalanche of such experiments by other scientists. Simulations of the Early Land, the Early Oceans, the ability of of volcanic events (stuff + energy) or sunlight (energy) and other "stuff" to create organic matter (life), on an on.

As ideas changed about what the Early Earth atmosphere actually consisted of, the simulation ingredients changed. But, eventually these Early Earth chemists managed to produce all the biological amino acids, and lots of other amino acids that are not used in biology.

Scientists at first became very optimistic that they were on the cusp of actually discovering and understanding the origin of life on Earth. In the 1950s many thought that they would have the question of life's origins wrapped up in a couple of decades. But, in fact, their journey was just beginning.

One of the many interesting things that Sherwood Chang shared with me during our drive between Berkeley and Vallejo came in response to my questioning him about how much he follows scientific progress now that he has turned in his Ames Laboratory garb for a cowboy hat in order to roam and manage his cattle ranch in Northern California.

Sherwood patiently addressed my perhaps over the top enthusiasm about the recent Mars mission and space exploration in general. He explained that a big aha moment for him was the realization of how slow research is. How many years go by, and how little we really learn in each chunk of time. Sherwood played his role in the timeline of human exploration and discovery. Now he is doing something else, cattle ranching. The scientific exploration continues, but the pace is  slow and will always be so. It took me a while to "get" what Sherwood was telling me about this.

My aha moment came when I began to read about the controversies that have followed the life creation simulation phase of those enthusiastic 1950s and 1960s scientists. For since that time, controversies have sprung up about the validity of their experiments, and many more, alternate, ideas have been proposed as to how those early amino acid building blocks of life might have "emerged" on Earth. Research takes time. Sometimes results and discoveries are validated, and sometimes they are invalidated - both the validating and the invalidating  taking years and years. Sometimes results and discoveries force the asking of many more new questions, the turning in new directions, which, in turn, takes more time. What seems to us in the moment some "great" discovery is usually just a pinpoint on the continuum of exploration - a continuum that will last as long as we do!

So, hats off to Sherwood for the role he played in the search for life on Earth, and happy trails to him on his Northern California ranch.

Next we will look at some of the controversies that succeeded the 1950s and 1960s simulator explorers, and start looking about the theories and research that has followed them. . . .



How Many Times Did Life Begin? And How Many “Lives” Are There?

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part III

Terry Collage Animation of NASA photos of Stefanie Milam, Michel Nuevo and Scott Sandford by Dominic Hart. These NASA scientists studying the origin of life reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory.

Terry Collage Animation of NASA photos of Stefanie Milam, Michel Nuevo and Scott Sandford by Dominic Hart. These NASA scientists studying the origin of life reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory.

A while back a college student mentee of mine asked me to join her for coffee. The moment I sat down, it was clear from the sadness in her eyes and the uncharacteristic squirming in her seat, that she wanted to talk with me about something important to her, not simply to share a cappuccino moment and discuss the WEB.

This brilliant but hardly world-wizened young woman began talking as soon as we sat down, and told me that she had recently made the very difficult decision to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. What had prompted her to consult with me was not the need for advice about this decision, as it was after the fact; she needed to talk about  a group of people who had confronted her as she left the medical clinic. With tears in her eyes now, she shared with me how the group had called her "a sinner" and told her that she had "killed the life that had been created in her womb."

As I sat there with my afternoon decaf latte wishing that she had come to me with a design problem or a missing closing bracket in a line of code, rather than this, something Carl Sagan once said popped into my mind. I don't remember when or where he said it, but it was one of those sentences that burns into your brain for some reason, as if a part of you knows you may need it some day.

"Mary (not her real name) I said to her, Life began only once. And it was billions and billions of years ago."

Mary looked at me unsure at first about what I was saying.

"I once heard a famous scientist, Carl Sagan, say that. About when life began. Mary, life did not begin in your womb. Life was not created in your womb. Anything happening in your womb is just a part of the continuum of something, life, that began so long ago we can't even conceive of it. Billions of years ago," I told her, hoping to reassure. Thank you Carl Sagan.

"I'm not a sinner?" she asked. To a young woman who had been accused of something so terrible, that is what this was really about.

"No, you are not a sinner. You are a young woman who had to make a really difficult decision, and I am sorry you had to make it alone."

I could not help but think back about that afternoon with my student, and the words of Carl Sagan, as I have been writing about my origins of life interview with scientist Sherwood Chang and conducting the accompanying research. Carl Sagan's remark, that Life began billions of years ago, may come in handy upon occasion, but it does not actually paint the truest or most clear picture, either. (continues, see button below-right)