Still Hunting for Life in the Solar System After All of These Years

first_imgThe only place where life exists in our solar system is in the imagination of Jerry Bergman, PhDThe headline of the new issue of Astronomy reads, “Special Issue: The Search for New Life.”[1] The subtitle reads: “Mounting Evidence: Hunting for Life in the Solar System.” I have heard claims like this for most of my life. When I was in 6th grade in the late 1960s my classmates took bets that life would be found on the Moon, then later, on Mars, then even later on Venus, and the evidence was quite clear that no convincing evidence of life was found on any planet we, or our probes, have searched.Having followed this search for several decades, it became apparent that even finding evidence of water was heralded as exciting evidence for life in the past or present, such as on Mars.[2] The problem is, even if water is found, water is very corrosive  to life. It is the universal solvent because it is capable of dissolving more substances than any other known liquid.[3]  In Spellman’s words “water is a powerful reagent able to dissolve everything on Earth.”[4] Given enough time, water is lethal not only for life, but is a solvent for many of the precursors of life, such as sugars, carbohydrates, lipids and amino acids. For life to live, it needs a complex, well-designed system of protection against water which all animals possess. This system must exist first before an organism can deal with water.Another essential ingredient is oxygen. Again, the problem is oxygen is highly corrosive to, not only metals, but also to many kinds of organic molecules. An example is when an apple is cut into sections and those parts not protected by the apple peel will, in a mere hour or less, turn brown due to oxidation. To reduce oxidation damage inside of our body, we ingest anti-oxidant vitamins, including vitamin A, C, and E. To deal with this problem, Harold Urey argued that the early Earth’s atmosphere was the opposite, namely a reducing atmosphere with less than one-percent oxygen and high levels of methane.[5]Recently I spent some time with a friend who is a lead scientist at NASA. A Ph.D. chemist and a creationist, I asked him if it was true that a major goal of NASA is to prove evolution because, if evidence for primitive life was found on a planet or exoplanet, that find is evidence that life can evolve anywhere, given enough time and the right environment. He agreed that proving evolution was their main goal, which they were spending billions to support, so I asked him how he could spend his life in attempts to find life on other planets when he knows this goal is futile. He answered that he enjoys his work, his wife also works nearby, and NASA research programs produce a great deal of research that sheds light on the physics and chemistry of other planets and outer space. He just has to keep his thoughts to himself, but says to himself over and over “well no evidence of life found there, as I expected.”No Need for GodThe editor of Astronomy wrote, quoting Richard Dawkins, that “no magic was required [God]” to create life because natural forces can explain the origin of life quite satisfactorily.[6] Eicher adds “Life doesn’t need magic. It simply needs systematic biochemistry.”[7] In other words, if we just have the correct set of chemicals and add some lightning or another source of energy, in time we will get life. Nothing more is needed than the right chemical and physical conditions and time, lots of time. As evidence, Eicher referenced Stanley Miller and Harold Urey who produced some simple amino acids using a sealed glass apparatus with gases that Oparin speculated were necessary to form life—namely methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), and hydrogen (H2).  Furthermore, Miller did not just throw some chemicals into a pond, but rather carefully orchestrated the reactants, the vessel for the reaction, and the time and temperatures at which to start, stop and isolate the products—a completely artificial and well-designed experiment. In the end, the experiment failed.Re-enactment by Illustra Media in film “Origin.”After a few days, the water and gas mix produced a thick pinkish goo on the sides of the flask trap. As the experiment progressed and the chemical products accumulated, the stain turned deep red, then a turbid color.[8] After about a week, the researchers analyzed the substances detected in the U-shaped water trap designed to collect the various reaction products.[9] Primary substances the gaseous phase produced included carbon monoxide (CO) and molecular nitrogen (N2).[10]An analysis of the contents of the thick, tarry substance produced in the apparatus by paper chromatography revealed that numerous substances were produced. The dominant solid material was an insoluble highly toxic carcinogen commonly called “tar” or “resin,” which is a common product in many organic reactions, including burning tobacco. Not a single amino acid was detected during this initial attempt, so Miller modified the experimental protocol and replicated it.[11]After modification, paper chromatography revealed trace amounts of a few of the simplest biologically useful amino acids—mostly glycine and alanine.[12] These two amino acids were the simplest of the 20 types normally required for life. The glycine yield was a mere 1.05 percent, and that of α-alanine and β-alanine were only 0.75 percent. The next most common amino acid produced amounted to a largely insignificant trace of 0.026% of the total. Miller admitted “The total yield was small for the energy expended.”[13]Glycine has a hydrogen side group, and alanine has a simple methane (CH4) side group. After hundreds of modifications using techniques similar to those in the Miller-Urey experiments, researchers were soon able to produce trace amounts of less than half of the 20 known amino acids required for higher forms of life. Not long after the Miller-Urey experiments was completed, many scientists feltthat the main obstacles in the problem of the origin of life would be overcome within the foreseeable future. But as the search in this young scientific field went on and diversified, it became more and more evident that the problem of the origin of life is far from trivial. Various fundamental problems facing workers in this search gradually emerged, and new questions came into focus.[14]After new intensive research,most of these problems have remained unsolved.  Indeed, during the long history of the search into the origin of life, controversy is probably the most characteristic attribute of this interdisciplinary field.  There is hardly a model or scenario or fashion in this discipline that is not controversial.[15]In a summary of the famous Miller-Urey origin-of-life experiment, Horgan concluded that Miller’s results at first seemed toprovide stunning evidence that life could arise from what the British chemist J.B.S. Haldane had called the “primordial soup.” Pundits speculated that scientists … would shortly conjure up living organisms in their laboratories and thereby demonstrate in detail how genesis unfolded. It hasn’t worked out that way. In fact, almost 40 years [now over 67 years] after his original experiment, Miller told me [Horgan] that solving the riddle of the origin of life had turned out to be more difficult than he or anyone else had envisioned.[16]This experiment actually did much more to disprove the possibility that life can originate by chemicals, energy, and time even when well-designed experiments were regulated by highly trained scientists.Eicher and all of the other writers were oblivious to this research, or elected to ignore it. In short, the Miller experiment has shown that life cannot be created by a bunch of chemicals and a lot of time. Oblivious to this fact, the Astronomy author’s guesses flowed forth. If not on Mars, how about beneath the crust of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa as the best chance for life to exist?[17]  Life could be on Saturn’s moon Titan in its soupy skies which are loaded with methane.[18] Possibly Saturn’s moon Enceladus?[19] Even Pluto is now being looked at as a possibility for life.[20] When these possibilities are ruled out, the dream of life elsewhere may dim slightly but will not have died. There are always other places to look, like the newly discovered exoplanets, to keep hope alive. After all, there MUST be life, like that on Earth, out there. We cannot be the only life in the universe, or could we??References[1] Astronomy. September 2019 cover story.[2] David Eicher, 2019. “Are We Alone in the Solar System?” Astronomy. pp. 22-23.[3] Frank Spellman, 2014.The Science of Water: Concepts and Applications, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: CRC Press, p.1.[4] Spellman, 2014, pp. 1-2.[5] Lewis Thomas, 1974.The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York, NY: Viking Press, p. 153.[6] David Eicher, 2019. “No Magic Required,” Astronomy, September 2019.[7] Eicher, 2019, p. 6.[8] Stanley L. Miller, 1953.. A production of amino acids under possible primitive Earth conditions.  Science, 117:528-529, (p. 528).[9] Robert Shapiro, 1986. Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. New York, NY: Summit Books, p. 100.[10] Noam Lahav, 1999. Biogenesis: Theories of Life’s Origin.  New York, NY: Oxford University.[11] Miller, 1955.  Production of some organic compounds under possible primitive Earth conditions.  Journal of the American Chemical Society, 77:2351-2361; Shapiro, 1986.[12] Shapiro, 1986.[13] Miller, 1953, p. 529. [14] Lahav, 1999, p. 50.[15] Lahav, 1999, p. 50.[16] John Horgan, 1996. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company (Helix Books), p. 138.[17] Mara Johnson-Groh, 2019. “How We Might Find Life on Europa.” Astronomy, September, pp. 30-35.[18] Michael Carroll, 2019. “Searching for Life on Saturn’s Big Moon.” Astronomy, September, pp. 44-49.[19] Morgan Cable and Linda Spilker, 2019. “The Enigma of Enceladus.” Astronomy, September, pp. 50-55.[20] Francis Nimmo, 2019. “Life’s Prospects on Pluto.” Astronomy, September, pp 62-67.Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.(Visited 388 times, 1 visits today)last_img

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