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Abiogenesis (Greek a-bio-genesis, "non biological origins") is the formation of life from non-living matter. Today the term is primarily used to refer to the chemical origin of life, such as from a 'primordial soup' or in the vicinity of hydrothermal vents, and most probably through a number of intermediate steps, such as non-living but self-replicating molecules (biopoiesis). The current models of abiogenesis are still being scientifically tested.



Primordial soup

In 1936 Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin, in his "The Origin of Life on Earth", suggested that organic molecules could be created in an oxygen-less atmosphere, through the action of sunlight. These molecules, he suggested, combine in ever-more complex fashion until they are dissolved into a coacervate droplet. These droplets could then fuse with other droplets and break apart into two replicas of the original. This could be viewed as a primitive form of reproduction and metabolism. Favorable attributes such as increased durability in the structure would survive more often than nonfavorable attributes.

Around the same time J. B. S. Haldane suggested that the earth's pre-biotic oceans - very different from their modern counterparts - would have formed a "hot dilute soup" in which organic compounds, the building blocks of life, could have formed. This idea was called biopoiesis or biopoesis, the process of living matter evolving from self-replicating but nonliving molecules.

In 1953, taking their cue from Oparin and Haldane, the chemist Stanley L. Miller working under Harold C. Urey carried out the famous Miller-Urey experiment on the "primeval soup". Within two weeks a racemic mixture, containing 13 of the 21 amino acids used to synthesize proteins in cells, had formed from the highly reduced mixture of methane, ammonia, water vapor and hydrogen. While Miller and Urey did not actually create life, they demonstrated that more complex molecules could emerge spontaneously from simpler chemicals. The environment simulated atmospheric conditions as the researchers understood them to have been on the primeval earth, including an external energy source in the form of a spark, representing lightning, and an atmosphere largely devoid of oxygen. Since that time there have been other experiments that continue to look into possible ways for life to have formed from non-living chemicals, e.g. the experiments conducted by Joan Oró in 1961.

Spontaneous generation

Classical notions of abiogenesis, now more precisely known as spontaneous generation, held that complex, living organisms are generated by decaying organic substances, e.g. that mice spontaneously appear in stored grain or maggots spontaneously appear in meat.

According to Aristotle it was a readily observable truth that aphids arise from the dew which falls on plants, fleas from putrid matter, mice from dirty hay, alligators and crocodiles from rotting logs at the bottom of bodies of water, and so forth. In the 17th century such assumptions started to be questioned; such as that by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, subtitled Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and Commonly Presumed Truths, of 1646, an attack on false beliefs and "vulgar errors." His conclusions were not widely accepted, e.g. his contemporary, Alexander Ross wrote: "To question this (i.e., spontaneous generation) is to question reason, sense and experience. If he doubts of this let him go to Egypt, and there he will find the fields swarming with mice, begot of the mud of Nylus, to the great calamity of the inhabitants."

In 1546 the physician Girolamo Fracastoro theorized that epidemic diseases were caused by tiny, invisible particles or "spores", which might not be living creatures, but this was not widely accepted. Next, Robert Hooke published the first drawings of a microorganism in 1665. He is also credited for naming the cell which he discovered while observing cork samples.

Then in 1676 Anthony van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms that, based on his drawings and descriptions are thought to have been protozoa and bacteria. This sparked a renewal in interest in the microscopic world.

The first step was taken by the Italian Francesco Redi, who, in 1688, proved that no maggots appeared in meat when flies were prevented from laying eggs. From the seventeenth century onwards it was gradually shown that, at least in the case of all the higher and readily visible organisms, the previous sentiment regarding spontaneous generation was false. The alternative seemed to be omne vivum ex ovo: that every living thing came from a pre-existing living thing (literally, from an egg).

In 1768 Lazzaro Spallanzani proved that microbes came from the air, and could be killed by boiling. Yet it was not until 1861 that Louis Pasteur performed a series of careful experiments which proved that organisms such as bacteria and fungi do not appear in nutrient rich media of their own accord in non-living material, and which supported cell theory.

Three years earlier, Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (published in 1859), had presented an argument that modern organisms had evolved, over immense periods of time, from simpler ancestral forms, and that species changed over time in accordance with cell theory. Darwin himself declined to speculate on some implications of his theory - that at some point there may have existed an ur-organism with no prior ancestor and that such an organism may have come into existence, formed from non-living molecules.

Although Pasteur had demonstrated that modern organisms do not generate spontaneously in nonliving nutrients, his experiments were limited to a smaller system, and for a shorter time, than the open surface of the planet over millions or billions of years. The ur-organism implied by Darwin's theories would have occurred in the deep geological past, 3.87 billion years ago, and it had a billion years from the beginning of the planet to be formed.


Main article: Panspermia

Panspermia, a hypothesis that allows life on Earth to have originated elsewhere in the universe, is viewed by some as an alternative to abiogenesis. All forms of the theory posit that life has spread through space to Earth, perhaps from other star systems. In its strongest form, Panspermia says that life has always existed. More common forms, however, simply transfer the origin problem elsewhere, and as such have no contention with abiogenesis; indeed they mitigate the potential problem of time constraints on abiogenesis occurring on Earth.

Clay hypothesis

Main article: Graham Cairns-Smith

Clay hypothesis (sometimes called clay theory) has been presented by Graham Cairns-Smith as a possible solution of the problem of origin of life from inorganic non-living matter. It is based on the assumption that original living organisms were low-complexity "naked genes", whose shape and chemical properties influenced their survival chances; the transition from inorganic lifeforms to DNA-based organisms was a "genetic takeover".

Cairns-Smith suggests crystals as original naked genes, and in particular clays. Clays can also include other atoms and molecules in their structures, and perhaps evolved including more and more complex structures, until DNA-related molecules would have taken control of the organism, becoming the genetic driver of its life.[1]


The modern concept of abiogenesis has been criticized by scientists throughout the years. Astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle did so based on the probability of abiogenesis actually occurring. Hubert Yockey did so by saying that it is closer to theology than science.

Other scientists have proposed counterpoints to abiogenesis, such as, Harold Urey, Stanley Miller, Francis Crick (a molecular biologist), and Leslie Orgel's Directed Panspermia hypothesis.

Beyond making the trivial observation that life exists, it is difficult to prove or falsify abiogenesis; therefore the hypothesis has many such critics, both in the scientific and non-scientific communities. Nonetheless, research and hypothesizing continue in the hope of developing a satisfactory theoretical mechanism of abiogenesis.

Creationists are intense critics of abiogenesis, arguing that it is extremely improbable. Their objections typically attack a strawman version of abiogenesis, calculating the odds of chemicals forming a modern protein, and assuming a fixed number of proteins. [2]


Sir Fred Hoyle, with Chandra Wickramasinghe, was a critic of Earth-bound chemical evolution. Specifically Hoyle rejected chemical evolution to explain the naturalistic origin of life. His argument was mainly based on the improbability of what were thought to be the necessary components coming together for chemical evolution. Critics sometimes refer to his arguments on this topic as Hoyle's Fallacy. Though modern theories address his argument, Hoyle never saw chemical evolution limited to Earth as a reasonable explanation. Hoyle preferred panspermia as an alternative natural explanation to the origin of life on Earth.


Information theorist Hubert Yockey argued that chemical evolutionary research faces the following problem:

Research on the origin of life seems to be unique in that the conclusion has already been authoritatively accepted … . What remains to be done is to find the scenarios which describe the detailed mechanisms and processes by which this happened. One must conclude that, contrary to the established and current wisdom a scenario describing the genesis of life on earth by chance and natural causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet been written.[3]

In a book he wrote 15 years later, Yockey argued that the idea of abiogenesis from a primordial soup is a failed paradigm:

Although at the beginning the paradigm was worth consideration, now the entire effort in the primeval soup paradigm is self-deception on the ideology of its champions. … The history of science shows that a paradigm, once it has achieved the status of acceptance (and is incorporated in textbooks) and regardless of its failures, is declared invalid only when a new paradigm is available to replace it. Nevertheless, in order to make progress in science, it is necessary to clear the decks, so to speak, of failed paradigms. This must be done even if this leaves the decks entirely clear and no paradigms survive. It is a characteristic of the true believer in religion, philosophy and ideology that he must have a set of beliefs, come what may (Hoffer, 1951). Belief in a primeval soup on the grounds that no other paradigm is available is an example of the logical fallacy of the false alternative. In science it is a virtue to acknowledge ignorance. This has been universally the case in the history of science as Kuhn (1970) has discussed in detail. There is no reason that this should be different in the research on the origin of life.[4]

Yockey, in general, possesses a highly critical attitude toward people who give credence toward natural origins of life, often invoking words like "faith" and "ideology". Yockey's publications have become favorites to quote among creationists, though he is not a creationist himself (as noted in this 1995 email).

The second law of thermodynamics

The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy (dispersal of energy) will tend to increase in an isolated system as time continues and differences in temperature, pressure and density tend to even out. More strictly, the entropy of a system can decrease only if work is done, i.e. energy is transferred from outside the system.

J. Rosenhouse points out that Earth is not an isolated system, but an open system receiving energy from the Sun. Furthermore, he notes that the time scales in which such large systems reach equilibrium can be very long, during which time local fluctuations in entropy are perfectly feasible, and may be observed all the time. [5] Furthermore, the concept of entropy in thermodynamics is not identical to the common notion of "disorder". For example, a thermodynamically closed system of certain solutions will eventually transform from a cloudy liquid to a clear solution containing large "orderly" crystals. Most people would characterize the former state as having "more disorder" than the latter state. However, in a purely thermodynamic sense, the entropy has increased in this system, not decreased. The units of measure of entropy in thermodynamics are "units of energy per unit of temperature". Whether a human perceives one state of a system as "more orderly" than another has no bearing on the calculation of this quantity. The common notion that entropy in thermodynamics is equivalent to a popular conception of "disorder" has caused many non-physicists to completely misinterpret what the second law of thermodynamics is really about.

See also


  1. ^ Cairns-Smith, Graham, Seven clues on the origin of life, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  2. ^ Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations Ian Musgrave. Talk Origins. 21 Dec 1998. Accessed 24 Oct 2007.
  3. ^ Yockey, 1977. A calculation of the probability of spontaneous biogenesis by information theory, Journal of Theoretical Biology 67:377–398, quotes from pp. 379, 396.
  4. ^ Yockey, 1992. Information Theory and Molecular Biology, p. 336, Cambridge University Press, UK, ISBN 0-521-80293-8.
  5. ^ "The fact is that natural forces routinely lead to local decreases in entropy. Water freezes into ice and fertilised eggs turn into babies. Plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen, but [we do] not invoke divine intervention to explain the process." Rosenhouse, J (2001). "How Anti-Evolutionists Abuse Mathematics". The Mathematical Intelligencer 23 (4): 3-8. Retrieved on 2007-03-26.

Additional reading

  • Buehler, Lukas K. (2000-2005) The physico-chemical basis of life, accessed 27 October 2005.
  • Pitsch, S. Krishnamurthy, R. Arrhenius, G. (2000). Concentration of simple aldehydes by sulfite-containing double-layer hydroxide minerals: implications for biopoesis. Helvetica chimica acta. Sep-Oct. 83(9):2398-411.
  • Hartman, H. (1998). Photosynthesis and the origin of life. Orig Life Evol Biosph. Oct. 28(4-6):515-21.
  • Things Come to Life by Henry Harris (2002) ISBN 0-19-851538-3
  • Arrhenius, G. Sales, B. Mojzsis, S. Lee, T. (1997). Entropy and charge in molecular evolution--the case of phosphate. J Theor Biol. Aug 21. 187(4):503-22.
  • NASA Astrobiology Institute: Earth's Early Environment and Life
  • NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training in Exobiology: Gustaf O. Arrhenius
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Abiogenesis". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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