This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the American Humanist Association
For me, one of the worst things about dying will be that I won’t get to know what happens next. I’ll miss so many interesting discoveries and ideas! News stories like this one reported in the NYTimes today are so exciting: Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be The Starting Point for Life
[An English chemist] has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.
I confess that I don’t know much about the origin of life. But then, unlike others (*cough* Biblical Literalists *cough*), I never claim to.
We now have a plausible way two of the four nucleotides found in RNA could have formed. So not everything is solved, but Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues may have cracked one of the toughest parts.
The spontaneous appearance of such nucleotides on the primitive earth “would have been a near miracle,” two leading researchers, Gerald Joyce and Leslie Orgel, wrote in 1999. Others were so despairing that they believed some other molecule must have preceded RNA and started looking for a pre-RNA world.
The miracle seems now to have been explained. In the article in Nature, Dr. Sutherland and his colleagues Matthew W. Powner and Béatrice Gerland report that they have taken the same starting chemicals used by others but have caused them to react in a different order and in different combinations than in previous experiments. they discovered their recipe, which is far from intuitive, after 10 years of working through every possible combination of starting chemicals.
It could be the caffeine I just had, but I find myself feeling proud of humanity and our progress in understanding the world.