Organic life is basically made of four elements: Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. 99% of organic molecules consist of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Carbon is unique as it binds easily with any of the above, with itself and, many others, such as sulphur, phosphorus, silicones and halogens. While most organic compounds contain carbon and hydrogen, some have sulphur, nitrogen, phosphorus and oxygen. But all living things contain carbon! Carbon is therefore classified as an organic element and molecules containing carbon are with some exception (e.g., salts) seen as organic molecules. They also contain hydrogen, but water itself, not containing a carbon element, is classified as inorganic. Despite water being essential to organic life, it does not get the badge of honour. Anyway! These basic elements form compounds, such as carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acid and lipids, which are found in all living organisms. They truly are the special ingredients, which produced the first “mother entity” of organic life. But how come that these elements assemble, how do they form the compounds?
Well, it is determined by the same processes as in the inanimate life and physics tells you.
To highlight the interlinkage of the principles involved, remember, energy in the state of potential is going nowhere. To induce movement there has to be an incentive and a directive as discussed before. The simplest directive is a gradient along which movement occurs. It is achieved by disparity, either down a hill, or between pools of varied loading, temperature, or two poles with opposite charges, etc. Movement occurs basically to equal out differences, meaning, it follows a given direction. Hence, when the BB burst into the scene, the paths and directives for all aspects of evolution came with it. Elemental forces, particular the electro-magnetic force and all the elementary particles, with their spin and charges, they are literally “life enforcers”, laying the foundation and locking in the blueprint like stencilling the concrete floor. Atoms, molecules, compounds assemble according to forces, in search to overcome disparity, equal out differences or just filling in to complete empty and open spaces, thus moving along charges according to affinity or disparity and tension between them. It ensures the plan is followed with little effort, rather like a routine, using physics and chemistry as the pathway, which is but flexible should it be required to adjust and modify and allow for new developments. What follows is a clear, well-trodden path consisting of repetitive elements that constantly secure the foundations. Thus, every cell has a gradient of some kind, be it chemical or electrical. Our heart would not beat without it and neither would any chemical reaction take place if it was not for that principle. It makes no difference if these reactions are of inorganic nature, or a biological function. The foundations are the same for both. It gets only more diverse and sophisticated as the life forms advance in complexity. But this is a specialised field of chemistry/biochemistry and of course physics, and though very interesting, it is impossible to address details here. The reader is advised to read specific literature about the processes elsewhere at his own leisure.
However, let us glimpse! After the BB, the cauldron of particles and forces is boiling. It is chaos at its best, but within the chaos patterns develop. Highly charged, smashing into and annihilating each other, particles are also fusing to the point of nucleation. Chaos is filled with opportunity and we find the various stages of atoms and molecules forming, which build denser collection here and there with some becoming hotspot nebulas from which stars and, galaxies are born. Billions of years after BB, our Earth appears out of the solar nebular by accretion, with a nucleus of iron, generating its own electro-magnetic field. Mind you, iron is also at the core of our life. As an element in our blood, it facilitates our oxygen consumption. Without iron, we would not breathe. Incidence? I think not! The iron core of Earth is essential to begin with since Earth’s magnetic field allows an atmosphere to form, without which organic life as we know it, would not exist. Therefore, iron is to us humans as elemental as it is to Earth as a planet.
Now, Earth originally a ball of gas and molten matter, spinning much faster around its axis than it does nowadays, had to slow down and cool down in order to create favourable environmental conditions for life to develop. In fact, it took a collision with a sister planet to put Earth on the path of its development. Albeit slow, with quite a few attempts to foster life, simple organisms were coming and going. Mind you, Earth was (and still is) in a phase transition. It means, the prevailing environment determines what chemical reactions can occur, which, down the track, allow suitable life forms to develop. Their life is sustained as long as the conditions are not altered dramatically.
By the way, chemical reactions are nothing but interactions between atoms, as to what effect and how varied, that is for Life itself to find out. Any interaction, please note, is a form of communication. You may call it the language of the inanimate, or for example, the language atoms speak. Charges and forces are words, the binding and bonding of elements are the sentences that link the words together, which conveys the information. It means, the actual reaction is also the transmission of the information and the resulting product is the answer on display, after the reactions took place. Basically, instructions are effectively delivered in wordless communication. J. Wheeler sure is right: These physical, chemical processes are information itself and the blueprint of Life. Cells too convey messages, by signalling the next-door cells. This principle is found in all the presentations of cell life. Just like the elementary particles and forces incorporate their instructions as they manifest, all follow the same rules, using the same pathway. As inanimate life does, so does organic life, and so do we. Our cells talk to each other, we need to talk to each other as all creatures do. The modus looks different, but the concept and the effect are the same. Waves are the messengers and the path, travelling over the distances, minute as from cell to cell, or as lengthy as between people.
Another important ingredient of organic life is water, though it does not have to be in the fluid phase to generate Life. In compounds, Hydrogen and Oxygen were always present, even in Earth’s early life. Most likely both were released by volcanic eruptions where clouds of steam, accompanying the sulphuric acid clouds and ashes, carried them after they were unlocked from magma and rocks that held them in as separate elements as Earth was cooling down. One can safely conclude that these two elements, H and O, finally got the chance to bond to our H2O due to volcanic activities. But present they were all along, even when our planet was still in its infancy. They are present everywhere else in the universe, hydrogen being in fact the most and oxygen the 3rd most common element.
Liquid water formed very early on Earth, though not necessarily always flowing in oceans and also being even vaporised by massive meteors still bombarding Earth at that time. Our planet also had very early an atmosphere, just not the one we have the pleasure to have now. It sure did not contain enough oxygen for life to prosper as we know it. But organic life was there too, with Earth only about 3,8 billion years old, like the methane producing microbes, which still can be found living on the ocean floor and volcanic grounds. Oxygen was not freely available then, only later, Earth being about 2,7billion years old. That’s when another micro-organism, the cyanobacterium, appeared and prospered in abundance. It supplied more O2 in its waste than was consumed by Earth’s environment, thus enriching the atmosphere with it.
Not only hydrogen, also ice is abundant, in our solar system and in space. You find it as close to the sun and as far away beyond in space, where it is present as interstellar ice, consisting of grains of ice that contain low boiling point chemical elements and compounds, like nitrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, hydrogen, methane and sulphur dioxide. These are part of our planet’s crust too. As ice grains they are also in our atmosphere and they are plentiful in molecular clouds where new stars are formed. Recently scientists found the precursors of amino acids and nucleotides there too, essential for organic compounds like proteins. Derived from the grain content by processes like hydrogenation, oxygenation and hydroxylation, it emphasises the point of how irrational it is to treat earth and universe as different things. But given the circumstances, Gaia is rather reasonable than a phantasy, wouldn’t you agree?
Now, ice as we know is the solid phase of water. When water cools down to 0 degree under normal atmospheric pressure, applicable to most of the water and ice forming processes on earth, the molecular arrangements of water changes during phase transition. Most of earth’s ice comes in hexagonal crystalline structure. If it contains impurities, it may be milky white, (snow). Ice is considered a mineral, a crystalline inorganic solid. Interestingly, if you prevent the molecules to arrange themselves into these highly ordered structures, water does not freeze but assumes the state of mesophase, regardless how low the temperature drops! The mesophase applies actually to all fluids, meaning crystals become liquid crystals, worth the mentioning due to the biological implications, which are only just now explored in depth and in context of three-dimensional organisation of living matter and its inner dynamic. (See research of structures and functions of fibrils in skins, muscle, lamellar bone, even DNA application; think fish scales and plywood too, just to give you an idea of the far-reaching implications.
The point to stress is that the phases are of utter importance, - for everything in the universe. And it is pure physics which builds and dictates development, step by step, not ever eradicating the bases it builds upon. Since also intelligence has to evolve, there is initially no capability to comprehend the processes involved. Only when intelligence itself expands far enough can the mind begin to unravel entanglements and hidden truths, to make them increasingly more transparent, so the mind can understand what is going on.
Earth formed a crust from the fluid lava as it was cooling down. Appropriate to phase transition it provided the reorganization of the elements, which were first mixed up in gas and then lava. Following the way of phase dynamics, solidification occurs by crystallisation, which provides the scaffolding and structuring within fluids (or solutions/precipitate). What was gas becomes fluid, becomes solid matter, appearing in form of crystals, rocks and then, earth, - literally building the ground for organic life to thrive on. Thermodynamic processes under earth’s electromagnetic field conditions, water and atmosphere contribute to the environment in which Life finds its expression in form of organic life, but the beginning of it is not much different to the nesting (or nucleation) in the boiling and cooling phases of plasma that lead to gases and the seeding of the molecular clouds.
Phase dynamics can be observed when water starts boiling, or cools down. Distinct surface patterns appear which then extend into a field of bubbles, or an ice field respectively, signifying the phase transitions. You literally observe the transformation of water, either as it starts to boil or builds up ice. From the surface pattern to distinct islets that spread out all over the surface, it is as easy as it is wonderful to watch, particularly in nature, when ponds and lakes freeze over in winter time. The same happens when lava cools down.
Any nucleating process occurs as a reaction between the (chemical) elements. There must also be a sufficient force to bring the particles/elements together (e.g. gravity, electric charges, energy of any kind), otherwise they would remain in ‘suspension’. When under the right conditions the particles, atoms, or molecules clump together, it marks the onset of nucleation, the “nesting”. Nucleation is thus the first step in every phase transition; indeed, it is the first step in the formation of structure and matter and, in fact, can be seen as an act of self-assembly, or self-organisation too. By definition, nucleation is simply the time that is necessary for an observer to wait before he actually can see the new phase or the new structure appearing.
It is also important to understand self-assembly or self-organisation, because all pre-existing components in a disordered system, be it the plasma soup after the BB or in the fluid solutions of our discussion here, all build organised structures, all adhere to patterns that are due to their own interaction amongst their own kind without any external direction and apart from the influence forced upon them by their environmental condition. (Not to be confused with the environmental conditions that fuel the process, influence and shape the outcome). If the components are molecules, the process is called molecular self-assembly.
The significance of that said is that it is the inherent property of energy, the potential energy that is contained in, as David Bohm sees it, implicate order, or, the quantum potential of the unbroken wholeness of the universe, or, if you like, the BB potential and, of matter, particle and all thereafter. For Sozieternas it is a concept of Life’s evolution. Self-assembly, self-organisation are steppingstones for energy to express itself, tangibly and visibly, you may call manifestation.
If nucleation happens in a static environment, the ordering will aim for an equilibrium. In a dynamic environment it follows the process of self-organisation. Simply said, everything ‘floating’ around in a disordered system seeks company, preferably their own or where it has affinity to, which, in fact, is reflected in social settings too, as “same of the same are good company”. Clumping together, or building social groups, everything, and everyone feels most comfortable amongst their own kind.
In nature, nucleation (self-assembly) means nanostructure (minute components) builds itself. In organic life, compounds grow and organise themselves by way of dimensional outreach and spatial arrangements. Environmental dynamics determine the formation the structures will have, how they function and what purpose they have or can be used for.
Nucleation may be a slow process, depending on the dynamics involved, and is usually not visible or observable, in contrast to phase transition and self-assembly. Water makes the phase process easy to grasp, since you can observe the ice patches and the spread to a seamless ice sheet. Steam, or Ice, the final outcome, is the definite thermodynamic phase. Impurities, interferences and disturbances in the system influence the rate of nucleation, the time a phase transition lasts and, what self-assembly, (or disintegration as in steam), will be like. But let us skip over these details as interesting as they may be.
The first appearance of nucleation occurs randomly in whatever medium or volume, and it fluctuates too. The islets that form are a primary process, but they may also serve secondary processes, some of which we humans can enjoy as pretty things, like gems and jewels. The interesting point is that nucleation has no steady rules, neither where it will occur nor when, nor that it will remain and not disintegrate again. In other words, it will only progress to the next step if the conditions acting upon allow it.
ohm’s “Potential Quantum Field” hypothesis talks about waves of inert energy appearing as random particles at interference junction points. If there is clustering, it may well be called nucleation at the most original level. The later crystallisation process from liquid to solid reflects the same, it just is easier to observe than quantum field fluctuations. It means, when we can see the product of a completed phase transition like we see the ice or the precious stone, we no longer struggle to accept the process and the product as real, though both are similar and in principle the same. We humans just need to see to believe.
Unobservable nucleation applies to the biological setting too, particularly concerning us when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer. Their plaques and metastasis we do not see in the initial stages where they ‘nucleate’, only later we do, when the illness shows the tell-tale cluster or metastatic spread.
Any phase or nucleation process needs energy, or a momentum to get the process rolling. It starts from a state of so-called meta-stability. The reader may delve into the laws of thermodynamics elsewhere, which can explain the above said, but let us just stick here to meta-stability and visualize it as a ball precariously sitting on a pointy top from where it is dislodged easily. It may be enough to pop down a stair or two, or, run down a hill, in any case, it would generate free energy in the process.
To recapitulate: Energy is the point to begin with as the pool of potential (A). In its quantum form, energy has no mass and moves as a wave. In its manifestation as a solid it is E=mc2, (B). The journey from A to B starts with assembly by nucleation, when particles and elementary forces appear, which exist in wave/particle form and interference patterns. Physics is the scaffolding; the structure crude matter uses to organise itself. Eventually the assembly becomes visible as its complexity grows. All this is only made possible by energy’s duality as particle and wave form, and as source and fuel functioning. As the interaction between particles and forces matter grows, so do simple reactions, growing into ever more sophisticated functions –, hello (bio-) chemistry, hello organic life and all the rest that follows.
The core ingredients of Earth consist of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, silicon, sulphur and iron. These elements build up earth’s crust and are part of all “living” things by nature. By now, though present for a long time, just not as obvious, physics got a partner in chemistry. Both have and create their own set of rules as they move along their way. To speed up chemical reactions, nature uses compounds called catalysts. They are involved in all complex reactions. When it comes to organic life and organic functions, they are called enzymes. However! They are made of nothing else but simple elements, only later on do these facilitators become more elaborate compounds themselves. They essentially help the processes and they are never consumed by the process itself. That we can breathe, eat and burn food for our energy supply, our metabolism, indeed every cell activity, relies on catalyst/enzyme activity. It is mindboggling how simple everything starts and how elaborate it gets. On the subject of chemical processes, catalysts and the role of enzymes, please read the specific literature. It truly is fascinating but for this article we can only seek out stepping stones to shorten the otherwise convoluted path (from inorganic to organic life).
The Miller-Urey experiment 1952 highlights such a stepping stone. It must be mentioned here, since it was the first experiment to prove that organic compounds like amino acids, the building blocks of organic life forms, can be synthesized from inorganic compounds. In laboratory condition that replicated Earth’s at the time conducive to allow organic life development, simple gases were exposed to heat, cooling and, electrical discharges simultaneously, replicating nature with its lightening and radiation, and indeed organic compounds formed.
Organic compounds of course are only part of the story. The other is ‘free’ energy. One hypothesis on the origin of life therefore emphasises the “metabolism first” approach, where catalysts play the major role. Naturally, it has its merits since metabolism is the ‘fuel supply’ all system and organisms depend on.
The earliest evidence of life on earth goes back to 3,7 GY (Giga, or billion years). It may have been present earlier. Science recently discovered very ancient life forms still exist deep down in earth’s layers. Not relying on oxygen to sustain life they could have evolved way beyond the Eoarchean Era, or the Hadian to which the fossils in the geyserite, (opaline silica) of the Pilbara Craton in WA, (Australia), and fossilized microorganisms in hydrothermal-vent precipitates in Quebec rocks, (Canada), belong to. However! Life as we know it, may have appeared with the ocean formation, 3,8 billion years ago; but the jury is still out there, waiting for more evidence.
That life evolved on Earth is more than reasonable than not since all the ingredients were readily available. It was only a matter of the right conditions to kick start the process that prompted the ‘seeds’ into germination for organic life to emerge. The first important step, the essential key, is assembly. With the compounds that Earth had on offer, the building of macro molecules went ahead, from single molecules to polymers, the molecular units, were strung together repetitively into chains. As they grow linearly and move spatially, they not only develop different structures but also different shapes, functions and, abilities. Remember, it is like one step at the time to build a chain, using repeatedly same units, which can then morph dimensionally from chain into body.
Organic life is shaped by the specific chemistry of carbon and water. It builds up from basically 4 polymer compounds: Lipids (cell membranes), carbohydrates (sugars, cellulose), amino acids (proteins) and, nucleic acids (RNA, DNA).
The principle of linear development is easy to follow, going from particle (e.g., quark), to atom, molecule and, polymer, which, with the appearance of RNA, marks the starting point for organic life development. Our organic world is an RNA world! Others may have pre-existed, but disappeared when conditions changed. For easy understanding, consider our spine or backbone. Similar to a polymer, built of same sort segments one after the other, it resembles a chain. Or look at embryonic development, from fertilized ova to blastula to gastrula and its three germ layers from which the whole body derives. Everywhere you look there is repetition all over again and again, the materials used, and how it is used and linked together. It shows how life expands and develops, with a few ingredients and in repetitive pattern, but in numerous and astounding combinations. There is indeed nothing ever new under the sun though the outcome is mindboggling! The combinations, the fitting and joining and, how the elements and basic ingredients work together, all demonstrate the simplicity of the design and the basic rules. In a way one may consider it to be a fractal (see later on). To get lost in the multitude of shapes and forms of life unfolding is not surprising, because its variety is distractive. And it is still evolving, even as we speak.
Polymers do not only give rise to organic compounds. Small molecules (monomers) of any element can join up simply by covalent chemical bonds leading to products of unique physical forms, properties and qualities. Many of them are perfect for industrial use due to toughness, viscosity, elasticity and with products ranging from the fluid to the amorphous, the semicrystalline and crystalline, or any other form you can think of. And all is and has Life!
Several branches of science came to the same conclusion: Everything has the ability to self-organize, to carry out self-assembly, which essentially means, bringing structure to chaos. In fact, the consensus is that chaos cannot support the visible world and certainly not organic life. Only by loss of entropy (chaos) can matter take shape. Structures are a state of order, like crystals, which have their atoms very neatly arranged. Self-assembly means just that, within chaos freely moving, disorganised elements tend to seek order, facilitated by forces and free available energies that prevail in high entropic phases, especially present at high temperatures. Cooling down changes the conditions allowing for other developments. It highlights the fact that while environmental conditions change, the principles of change do not, - they are the pervasive constant within the system.
John Conway, Stanislav Ulam, John Newman and, Hermann Haken, scientists, (including mathematicians), should be mentioned here since they contributed to the understanding of how self-organisation and, self-replication, the other essential criteria in the definition of organic life, can arise within and from “lifeless matter”.
John Conway, an English mathematician, developed a computer game called “Game of Life” (1970). With this game he proved that anything that can be computed algorithmically can also be computed within real life. Though a simulated “life game”, it is applicable to real life cells, showing exemplary the emergence of self-organisation. Complex patterns emerge from the implication of the game’s simple rules, thus serving as a didactic analogy, which conveys that, against counter-intuitive notion, complex design and organisation can spontaneously arise in the absence of a “designer”.
His work was based on Stanislav Ulam’s and John Von Newmann’s studies on the growth of crystals by liquid motion, which demonstrates how crystals form out of liquid, showing the “first system of cellular automata”. Von Newmann created a method to calculate liquid motion by using discrete units of liquid and studying the effects it had on units/cells and their neighbourhood and the vice versa effects, meaning, he studied the changes it brought upon the pre-existing unit/cell arrangements and how their behaviours impacted on each other. There are natural rules by which units/cells transmit any excitation to neighbouring units/cells. The closer they are packed together (tessellation) the easier it is to appreciate the transmission of excitement, ergo data, upon which patterns in nature occur and build upon. The simplest example to demonstrate excitement and transmission is to throw a pebble into a still pond and watch the ripples spreading. It is
extraordinarily well ordered and executed, but the beauty lies in the detail and in the complexity of the result that follow.
It also demonstrates that information is passed on without the need of a spoken word. Information, the prerequisite for any development, you can call it the interwoven, intrinsic, and, pervasive spirit of life, is encrypted energy, or the architecture of life. Not to be confused with God, it is not an entity, though even the Bible says: ‘In the Beginning there was the Word’. Note! Words are units (or symbols) of information. Nature has its own language, present from the beginning as information passed on by interaction (see above). For Sozieterna information is simply energy, vibrational energy, where the content is encrypted by the wave’s frequency. Language, music, bird song, useful, necessary, delightful, no matter what, it is based on vibrations we feel, on waves we receive and in a frequency pattern that our brain can decipher and utilize.
The work of Hermann Hake may be of particular interest for people who want to explore how self-organisation out of chaos occurs. His popular book “The Science of Structure: Synergetics” may serve that purpose. In short here, ‘Synergetics’ is an interdisciplinary science of which Hake is understood to be the founder of. It is concerned with the self-organisation of patterns and structures in an open system far from thermodynamic equilibrium and is based on the order-parameter concept that describes phase transitions in thermodynamics. Basically, self-organisation means reduction of degrees of freedom of a system in exchange of order, thus leading to pattern formation, structure and form. Self-organisation requires a macroscopic system, consisting of many nonlinearly interacting subsystems, depending on the external control parameters such as environment and energy fluxes. This applies to all the self-organisation of patterns in the many different systems in physics, chemistry and biology. Our visible world is full of beautiful patterns, in plants, animals, just anywhere you look, but they are just the other side of chaos, or the opposite extreme of one and the same collective.
Self-assembly and self-organisation share their importance with the other important aspect of Life, that is self-replication. Von Neumann realized and proofed that a particular pattern of cells/units would make endless copies of its self within its own framework. The ‘cellular automata’ were demonstrated in the tessellation automata as simple units/cells packed together. They replicated as they formed the nests of crystals, emerging in the liquid he had set up to study. In fact, the cell/unit automata inspired him to seek a self-replicating machine (which was an ambition of many scientists’ throughout centuries). Convey clearly demonstrated via computer technology that the simplest cellular automation is indeed one dimensional, with 2 possible states per cell/unit, the adjoining neighbour cell/unit on each side. A set of rules applies in nature conditionally. Convey in his “Game of Life” put an algorithm in place, which governs and determines the patterns that will be created within the given confines. Von Newman demonstrated with his study that nature actually has been doing the same all along.
Von Neumann, though his ambition was to design a self-replicating machine that could in fact evolve by itself, did not pursue this idea after all. But his design became known as the “Universal Constructor”. Importantly, his assertion was, that open-ended evolution required inherited information to be copied and passed on to the offspring separately from the self-replicating machine, an insight that preceded the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick, which functions literally and exactly the way Von Neumann postulated as the requirement for self-replicating machines.
Self-replicating machines however are no longer a drawing board item either. They are well on the way of taking over manufacturing, particularly in certain areas of modern life. They are already used in space exploration and exploitation, (e.g.: Mars exploration, or for mining asteroids). It is far cheaper to send such machines to moon or planets than whole machinery ready made on earth. Self-assembling robots on Mars certainly do a great job right now.
Returning to life and self-replication, branches of mathematics are of particular interest here. Chaos theory and, topology especially, provide insight into the intricacy of life’s unfolding. In the apparent randomness of chaotic complex systems there are these underlying patterns, such as constant feedback loops, repetitions, and self-similarity, meaning, parts of a figure are small replicas of the whole. Such figure is called self-similar. Any arbitrary parts containing an exact replica of the whole, are called fractals. Imagine them as shapes that appear the same at different levels, as is beautifully illustrated in ‘successive magnifications’. The blueprint of Life may well be seen as a fractal that is repeated over and over again, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, one expression that fits into every dimension as a replica of and in its every detail, hence macro cosmos is the micro cosmos, only the magnification is different. But remember, the fact that order arises from local interaction between parts of an initially disordered system is energy in action.
Despite talking about organic life, we have not left the realm of the inorganic by any means. Energy to matter, as miniscule as it may be, means organizing itself into structure and the emphasis lies on the phases, phase transitions and the forces acting upon and within it. Consolidation as it appears and is observed in the formation of crystals, is the underlying foundation for Earth’s geological development. As soon as we have structure and in particular a solid surface, the first step into solid biological life is made.
Still asking how organic life can arise from ordinary matter? Hopefully not, after all, it does not arise! Life is inherent in energy, which only transforms and changes in appearance. But due to the unfolding diversity it is easy to lose track and overlook the simple premises Life builds upon.
There are many theories around, how inorganic life facilitates conditions to bring about organic life. The iron, sulphur, pigment or “metabolism first” theories, just to name some, all have their merits, but I would like to look at the clay theory, solely for the reason that the Bible mentions clay as the substance of which the first human, Adam, was created from. And, because clay has shown to be a catalyst for the polymerization of RNA on which our organic life is based upon. This may be incidental or not. It sure is too interesting and too odd to gloss over, particularly since knowledge is not gained only through science as was already pointed out before.
Earth’s crust is made of 90% silicate. Montmorillonite (named after Montmorillon, in France), is a group of soft phyllosilicate that forms out of a water solution as microscopic crystals, which are loosely packed together so water can still act as an agent that makes the clay swell or shrink according to the water content. This is enormously useful for all kinds of applications, including industrial ones. All clays have such propensity, just not as sublime as Montmorillonite, (found in other countries too under different names). Its significance lies in the fact of being a formidable catalyst. The clay hypothesis postulates that complex organic molecules arose gradually on pre-existing non-organic replication surfaces of silicate crystals in solution. Studies confirmed clay’s role as a catalyst in the formation of RNA, by joining nucleotides together to longer chains, which in the study also displayed gene like behaviour. (Later dismissed as too unreliable (?)).
Catalysts are well and truly amazing. They speed up development, namely in chemistry and are present all the way, also in the primordial conditions of stellar nucleosynthesis. Therein, in the gaseous clouds, you find the origin of the molecular evolution, where chemistry is a ‘way of life’. Catalysts earn the title of initiator, influencer, and work horse and, most dedicated service provider all in one, if you consider what they do to keep everything going.
The hypothesis of the “Primordial Soup” as postulated by Oparin (Russian biochemist) and Haldane (British/Indian biologist) around 1927, gave rise to John Bernal’s work (1949, Irish scientist), which concludes that most molecules necessary for organic life could be synthesized from their inorganic precursors. He later coined the word “Biopoiesis” in 1967 in reference to the ‘origin of life’.
To simplify the complex work of these pioneering scientists may be best done by describing some of the distinct steps in the course of development, appropriately named the molecular evolution:
1) Elements within early Earth’s reducing atmosphere exposed to various forms of energy produced simple organic compounds.
2) These compounds may have concentrated in various locations, e.g.: shore lines, oceanic vents, hot pools etc.
3) Further transformation over time led to more complex biological polymers
4) In Bernal’s extended version, between step 2 and 3, the organic molecular evolution begins with the formation of simple structures and cell like shapes, behind which and within their boundaries, biological reactions continue to occur, but with the difference that they are now taking place in an enclosed space (vesicle, cell), and where the supply of energy is now secured by metabolism.
The way how (cell) membranes assemble offer a better understanding of the structural origin of cells, but how they become life cells the above explains that very well indeed. Prerequisite are of course the organic compounds as discussed before. We also know, the most basic is the carbon-hydrogen molecule (CH), which is a radical since the C has 3 open valences ready to pair with other atoms. It is found everywhere, including the interstellar medium, the space between galaxies, which consists of ionic, atomic and molecular gases as well as dust and cosmic rays. Any of these highly dynamic places, with magnetic fields and turbulent motions and, of particular importance ultraviolet electromagnetic radiation, are called hot spots of action, a name truly justified, since complex molecules form in such hot spots, meaning, that complex organic molecules already were present in the protoplanetary planes of our sun before Earth even existed. It should be highlighted since Earth formed by accretion, sweeping up what was available, all the diverse alchemy of life already brewed out and ready for use. However! Certain conditions favour certain developments, and pluralistic circumstances work synergistically together. While each and any development has significance in its own right, they all contribute to specific outcomes, which would otherwise never be achieved. But, single molecules do not stay single, they assemble. (It may be well be the case of Adam seeks Eve). The formation of compounds is inevitable and would certainly occur after Earth progressed as the planet and stabilised.
Polyatomic molecules are such inevitable items and with the C in it, they are biomolecules. Of specific interest are the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), also found everywhere in the visible universe, extra-terrestrial and terrestrial alike. In certain circumstances they are toxic to organism, but they are also easily modified by the way of chemical processes, turning them into something beneficial as far as building new compounds is concerned. By the way, what is called synthesizing in the inorganic world, is called metabolizing in the organic. Both do the same thing. That is, synthesizing means chemical reactions bring new atoms and new molecules into existence not existent before. Metabolizing means, existing matter encourages new organic connections, bringing about new organic life forms. Therein lies the chance of development, survival and prosperity, bringing ever more order into a lively chaos and ever more diversity into organic life forms.
The reader may have come across the expression ‘primary metabolites’, like amino acids, lactic acids, carbohydrates, lipids, just to name the most important. They are defined as components of the basic metabolic pathways and essential for organic life forms because these are molecules responsible for structure, maintenance and procreation. In fact, they are multi-taskers, as good in engineering and management as they are in handling and passing on information to ensure species evolution takes place. They have their “hands” in everything.
From the amino acids to proteins, needed for cytoskeleton formation; from fatty acids to glycerol phospholipids, which are the essential building material of cell membranes; the carbohydrates, essential for energy supply and, structural components; to finally the nucleic bases building nucleotides, essential for RNA and DNA, which store and transmit genetic information, - these primary metabolites give the green light for the diversity of organic life. They not only create the bodies, they are the cornerstone of (cell) functioning, ranging from simple cell life to complex brain tasks, facilitating every necessary process, be it in the confinement of one cell or in the systems of multicellular organisms and enzymes are their best friends.
But ultimately, it all boils down to energy, being the fuel for every process and as the visible manifestation of all matter, expressing itself in every action and form of Life. Energy is the essence of Life, - energy is Life. In organisms it acts as a self-contained unit, while always being part of the overall Energy Life Cycle.
Now, every synthesis, every metabolic process is basically a chemical reaction in a dynamic environment. In highly chaotic (entropic) conditions the situation is particularly volatile. Initially this allows only subtle orderly processes to happen without immediate noticeable results. Atoms, molecules, cells only appear (see above), when a substantial part of the chaos has been ruled in. Cells offer just a small space within for operation, meaning, any action has to be particularly subtle, tuned down, if you like. In order to function, metabolism has to be truly a highly efficacious tool. Molecules, before catalysts, now enzymes, do indeed finely tuned work within the confined space of an organic entity, but some simple life forms do not even have yet the full set of functioning that enables them to live on their own, like viroids and viruses. Though they have their own metabolism, they need a host to propagate. Such simplistic entities demonstrate that they are just one of the possibilities of many that can arise out of those hot spot high energy cauldrons. It is a matter of time as to how successful a unit of primary metabolites is, and as to what extent it is able to establish itself as a distinct life form and survive.
Since energy is necessary even for the utmost miniscule organism to sustain life, methods of obtaining it have evolved too. A simple way of “catching food”, or fuel, is osmosis, which is in fact the principle of respiration mitochondria use, the cell organelles known to be the powerhouses of the cells. Mitochondria are present in almost all cells, generating most of the cell’s adenosine triphosphate (ATP) supply, the cell’s energy source. Indeed, these organelles are vital to organic life as we know it. However, the reader should not be fooled into believing that’s all mitochondria do. Anyway, their respiratory osmosis is in most part still highly regulated and far more sophisticated than other osmotic exchanges which range from the very simple to the elaborate. Just as a side note, what these organelles accomplish and how they do it, is truly amazing. Specific literature is therefore highly recommended to explore mitochondrial intricacies.
Energy harvesting is of utmost importance, a must for all evolving organisms. Osmosis is of course only one way to fulfil the order, (see further below). Generally, it is rather a matter of what is on offer, what can be utilized and what suits best. Some organisms ingest solid elements from the environment, some peruse the aerobic path, some capture light. Certain conditions determine the route of access, other conditions provide other options, but certain is that organisms adopt a pathway that suit best and will either adapt or vanish should change occur. One anaerobic process, called fermentation, would have been the most reasonable source for early organic life forms living in Earth’s oxygen free atmosphere. Indeed, organisms deep in earth still use it. Little is known about them and one can only guess as to why they exist where they are. It may be due to being the only place for them to survive after Earth’s atmosphere was oxygenated thanks to the cyanobacteria. Gobbling up the plentiful nitrogen while releasing oxygen, they fertilized the atmosphere with O2, thus changing the environmental conditions, which paved the way for new organisms to strive. While replacing the old ones, some may have been pushed into niches where they still linger on. However! Plants played a vital role too in shaping life on Earth. Using photosynthesis as their energy source, while excreting O2 as their waste, our life pretty much depends on them. The point is, Earth provides everything that organic life needs for its survival, one way or the other. It is a perfect recycling system and if maintained well, life on Earth could go on for a long time, albeit nothing can stay the same. Transformation is part of existence.
Since organic life is visible life, organisms are, figuratively speaking “parcels of energy” of variable shape, size, strength and, properties. It means, they occupy space and they have dimensions themselves. Though we already looked at them before in a different context, they require our full attention if we want to understand organic life. Basically, dimensions are “a condition of Life”, (in-) organic or not. Exploring the fundamental implications of dimensions allows us to follow Life’s trail and how organisms develop along the well-trodden path, which, in principle, we should already be familiar with. With dimensions in focus, we just look at it from a different angle.
In the first dimension single molecules simply add fellow molecules, thus building chains of molecules. But not always following a straight line, they may bend, go up and down, or hook up at one or the other point on themselves. By doing so, they build figures of the two-dimensional order, shapes if you like, meaning, they have outlines and content. But they build bodies that have volume, now belonging to the 3rd dimension, (length, width and height). With changes like these, everything else changes. Not only have their appearances changed, but qualities too, as well as their functions and capabilities, which impacts on further developments. One molecule has a different quality than a chain of molecules and shapes are different again in quality and behaviour, while bodies become sophisticated functional units, and complex entities. And one has to keep in mind, all move in space and time, regardless, (the 4th dimension). However! In space, actions occur simultaneously, and though each may have a time line and a time span, in space they are relative to each other, exerting influence on everything, regardless of shape and bodily form. Dimensions are boundless until, or unless, arbitrarily linked to or conditionally locked in by matter.
A big step forward with enormous impact on organic evolution comes with the spatial arrangements of molecules, where bodies form and functions multiply. Like molecules, shapes may clump together, or they may settle in various locations on structures built before. It means, 3 dimensional compounds gain on size and volume, and every arrangement has a unique appearance and allows for different functions with different impact on further developments. This is particularly true for proteins where there are compounds with the same number of the same molecules, but due to their different spatial arrangements the proteins are not the same, nor do they function the same way. Molecules in some proteins may even occupy locations as symmetric images, but they cannot be superimposed on each other, (like our hands). In physics we know that particles spin, but they spin clockwise or anticlockwise, and an electric field vector may be of left or right-handed orientation. In chemistry we have optical isomers, so we speak of left or right-handed molecules. This is called chirality, which has a vital role to play in all areas of Life. Living organisms use molecules of the same chirality with almost no exceptions, which is still puzzling scientists, because the why remains unexplained. Just to give the reader an idea: Amino acids are left-handed, while nucleotides and sugars are right-handed. But why? It sure has its roots in outer space physics, since in space amino acids and sugars show the same chirality and are the more prevalent than the counterparts. And remember, what happens in the macro-cosmos applies to the micro-cosmos as well. But the why still stands.
Naturally, the longer the chains of molecules, the bigger the shapes, the more locations are available to settle on and branch off from and, the more complex the compound will be. It means, as more functions develop, more duties need to be executed. We know, protein chains can be very long indeed, but in an organism, they have to fit into very small spaces too. So, the chains fold up into layers, closely packed together. Their integrity is maintained by special proteins that have control function, because all this looping, folding, inverting could spell disaster if it was not properly organised, protected and, defended, all for the sake to provide bigger surfaces in a confined space. Just think of our genetic material in cell nuclei, or, our small intestine. Long as it is, it fits into the small abdominal cavity; or the brain, with all the folds in the small bony skull! It is amazing, what can be achieved with 3 dimensional structures, consisting but of the same few particles, atoms and molecules. Nothing short of ingenious I would say. And we literally can see the blue print of Life itself right in front of our eyes without, sad to say, realizing it as such. There is no need for an idol to be worshipped, there is no entity separate from Life. It is energy, the force in action, which creates and keeps you alive and everything growing. However, as a topic of Theo-philosophical interest, it warrants a separate exploration and though it is part of the spiritual aspect of Life, it will not be extensively addressed in this article, since scientific evidence is still in its infancy to prove a point or claim certainty. Even in the field of cognition, despite recently new research interests, boosted by more sophisticated tools becoming available that allow to look into the workings of the brain and neurological systems, - the spiritual aspects remain out of reach as yet. Though ringing in a new era of discoveries, a deeper understanding of spiritual life needs more than a few new discoveries. It needs conceptual rethinking. Therefore, detailed or specific philosophical discussions will remain on their own platform until substantial headway in particle physics is made, which is no doubt the realm where the spiritual connections lie.
Having touched on the general principles of structural development, let us look at cell formation itself. Though cells are no prerequisite for protein activity, organisms are foremost celled organisms. Even viruses depend on a membrane enclosure but they are not classified as cellular, having only a protective sheet instead of a cell membrane. A boundary, separating external (inorganic) processes from internal (organic) processes, is not only necessary, it is imperative, since it separates the universal ‘entropic’ space matter from the structured solid matter, expressed at its climax as organic life forms. A cell is however still maintained as an open system, thermodynamically speaking, exchanging matter and energy through its borders with the surrounding external space. A simple unit, like a cell, can do that perfectly via the cell membrane. Cell development in detail is intricate, but let us look at the most obvious, the most likely and most simple scenario.
In recent years great attention has been given to organelles. They are membrane less bodies in the cell cytoplasm, similar to colloids in suspension. Organelles, (coined coacervates by Oparin), are distinct fluidic bodies in a fluid. They form in an aqueous phase of matter rich in macromolecules (such as polymers, proteins, nucleic acids) by liquid-liquid phase separation appearing as droplets (coacervate droplets), because their phase is denser compared to the fluid, they are in. They form spontaneously via molecular self-assembly, the non-covalent interaction of molecules, in contrast to the chemical valency system. These macromolecules cluster due to electrostatic, or hydrophobic forces, (just to name a couple). Though they have no membranes separating them from the surrounding fluid, they are distinct “compartments” within it. This allows the formation of ‘quite massive’ chemical and/or, organic structures, such as viroids, membranes, ribosomes, and the cell organelles we speak of.
Sidney W. Fox showed in his work that amino acids spontaneously form small chains (peptides), which in certain prebiotic conditions build long, often crosslinked thread like structures (polypeptide globules). He called them proteinoid microspheres and primitive cells (protocells). In his experiments he found phosphoric acid acted as a catalyst fostering the process of polymerisation, building the protein-like chains. He later found similar but naturally occurring proteinoids in the lava and cinder of Hawaiian volcanic vents. When an aqueous solution has a high concentration of proteinoids, microspheres form, because some of the amino acids incorporated in the chains are more lipophilic than others, so they clot together, resembling droplets distinct from the solution they are in, (like oil drops in water).
Fox’s work certainly supports Oparin’s hypothesis, who proposed that “simple building blocks” could locally increase in complexity and their self-assembly would lead to cell like structures. Organelles, also known as biomolecular condensates, can in fact change into more solid forms, particularly as they mature, fulfilling various and, more and more duties, (e.g., participating in gene expression and signal transduction, etc.). Since Oparin, many other scientists have shown and substantially contributed independently as to how from the “chemical soup”, rich in prebiotic material full of basic building blocks, organic life synthesizes to become more complex structures, like cells.
Organelles are likely stepping stones, but other simultaneously occurring developments would foster the specific evolution of organic life too. For instance, the presence of auto catalysts, which are substances that facilitate the production of themselves, the so called “molecular replicators”, found in biological macromolecules as well as in smaller organic molecules. And other systems of self-replication, as evident in micelles, or vesicles, suggest, there is no exclusivity.
According to the official definition of life, metabolism is a criterion for life. Therefore, the hypothesis that metabolism had to be established before any organic development could occur, is reasonable. Günter Waechterhaeuser, (German chemist), proposed that indeed metabolism preceded genetics since nothing eventuates without energy. The supply of energy has to be guaranteed, to allow creation, maintenance and survival of any life form. It is of such importance that the information is passed on in its entirety to the offspring. But! To qualify as an entity in its own right, another condition has to be fulfilled too, namely, the separation of an organic compound (or unit) from its surrounding, which, and only then, turns active biological macromolecules into a distinct life entity.
The principle of energy supply is systemised, which may be based on content concentration differences (osmosis), or on the electrochemical gradient system, driving particle exchange across concentrations pools, and/or, the electrostatic force, which moves cations and anions along its charge gradient between differing pool potentials, where anions can flow one way and cations the other. The unique underlying purpose of any gradient is to achieve balance, or homeostasis, or equilibrium. While gradients provide the path for Life to begin and ensure continuity of energy supply, the general goal always is to reach a steady state. The psychological and moral equivalent to that is peace and conscience; the spiritual equivalent is heaven, paradise, or Nirvana, or, as Sozieterna likes to look at it, the ultimate evolutionary climax of differentiation. Ask humans what they want to achieve most! It is love, peace and happiness, or, paradise, heaven of whatever kind. That is the ultimate goal, and no effort is too much to achieve it, the right or wrong way. Humans work for it and spend energy on it so they can finally rest, in peace. Get it?
However! Having the energy supply sorted, entity formation goes hand in hand with cell membrane development since it is not enough to have just compartments with vulnerable borders. Without “solid” walls complex life cannot succeed, at least not to the extent we have it. Obviously, the phospholipid membranes were the best and most successful solution in accomplishing the task. How many other attempts there were, even successful ones in accordance to the past environmental conditions on Earth, we will never know. After all, organisms cannot survive circumstantial changes, not of substantial and massive scale, or when it occurs too fast. Fossils, Earth’s biological history books do not, or cannot reveal all what is to know. But what has transpired by now regarding planetary evolution, Earth’s current diverse life forms will die off due to as in this case, the human species causing environmental changes that will render Earth incompatible with life, at least the way we know it. And, nobody will ever find out what happened, too rapid are the changes and too devastating are the consequences. New intelligent life may develop but by that time nothing will be left to study of what once was.
Anyway, returning to the proteinoids, the development of protobionts, or protocells, are a logical evolutionary step. They were the most likely first to emerge, the base model, so to speak. With metabolism and replication in place, the formation of an independent autocatalytic (sub-) system is rather a given than an accident. The Hungarian theoretical biologist Tibor Ganti named these protocells chemotons and proposes them to be our ‘Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA)’. The general biological/philosophical conclusion is that any such system may be regarded as alive and an evolutionary unit, which can be subjected to natural selection. Indeed! Earth has born us, raised us and gives us everything to thrive.
Now, since cells have membranes let us look at them a bit closer. They derived most likely from amphiphilic macromolecules (phospholipids). Like lipids, when in an aqueous solution, their nature allows them to form vesicles, multi- and uni-lamellar liposomes and, finally, the all-important bilayer membranes, which become the cell walls. The cell membrane is the only cellular structure found in all cells of all celled organisms. These membranes have a dual function, as barrier between two “worlds” and as facilitator of content exchange between the inside and outside environment. Amphilic molecules can fulfil both roles and are the best fabric for the purpose. Being bi-layered they can operate with water and lipid elements. The internal space provides a safe environment, suitable for secure functioning and propagation to nurture life, including new life. A cell is like a woman’s womb. This analogy may help to understand what protocells meant for the development of organic life forms. Life, of course, existed already, but in the confinement of a cell it is fostered, prompting cells to specialize.
It is out of scope for this article to delve into the specifics of biochemical and geo-biological conditions in detail, but there should be no doubt that Earth itself provided the perfect ingredients to give organic life on this planet the chance of differentiation in all its glory. While some scientists favour the hydrothermal deep ocean vents as the origin of organic life, others propagate hot spring sweet water pools in a volcanic crust landscape setting. Deep sea alkaline vents are a source rich in minerals. They also provide an electrochemical gradient, which ensures the emerging inorganic compartments have an energy source that endows mineral cells with catalytic properties. Inorganic compartments are precursors of cells facilitating membrane development. Very simple cell walls are found in the free-living prokaryotes, the micro-organisms (bacteria and archaea), which live in such vents.
Special recognition must be given to the archaea since they have more in common with eukaryotes (to which we belong) than with bacteria, sharing similar genes and metabolic pathways with us, in particular for enzymes in gene transcription and translation. They are the most abundant of all microbiota, being a major part of Earth’s life and even in our human microbiome of the gut. They became first known as extremophiles but they are found everywhere. In fact, they are thought to be the oldest “living thing” as far as organic life goes. They also do not seem to be particularly pathogenic either, in whatever form they come. In fact, they are rather beneficial symbionts. Some insects would not exist without them and neither would we, since the mitochondria (our cell batteries) most likely descended from an archaeon interned by a host to the benefit of each other in the quest for survival. Archaea are of course also found in hot spring pools which backs the view of life’s origin being thought to have evolved in sweet water rather than the salty sea.
Inland pools of condensed and cooled geothermal vapours point at the chemistry of modern cells since they have a cytoplasm rich in potassium, zinc, manganese and, phosphate ions, which are plentiful in these pools, but less widespread in marine environments. Spewed up from earth’s inner mantle, collectively increasing in bubbling pools of water while cooling down to a more favourable temperature, there is a hatchery available in nooks and crannies and holes and cavities of earth’s crust. There, inorganic minerals can and are catalysed, organic molecules can assemble and are synthesized and, microspheres can form since the ingredients are plentiful and conditions speed up the process. It is like the stage of a concert hall where a symphonic orchestra plays and is building up to the crescendo. We know, (see above), Montmorillonite clay can help create RNA, encourages lipids to form membranes, turning fatty acids into micelles and vesicles etc., because the clay is a chemical catalyst.
The complexities of these processes are as fascinating as the best thriller and it is truly recommended to delve into the available literature, which cannot be done here. This article intends to clarify the principles of Life, provide a basic overview that encompasses the 3 distinct categories of Life. The specific focus on the origin of organic life is not because it is more interesting than the other 2, far from it, it is for the purpose to examine the publicly upheld definition of Life and the still unsettled question of the origin of Life on Earth. By summarising the known and the most likely facts of our organic evolution, it hopefully helps to update the definition of Life to the standard as Life deserves it.
Inorganic life cannot really captivate our phantasy as good as organic life does, simply because we perceive Life with our senses. Only through them do we grasp its bewildering magnitude. Though to be fair, we stare at moon and stars in wonder, but not many find it tempting to explore matter itself. With our mind we try to understand, but that is limited by our evolutionary confines, meaning, our minds always lag behind, simply due to the fact that knowledge (recognition) and insight (integration of knowledge) are not the same. Of course, the arrival of cell life was a significant milestone in the evolutionary process. It gives matter, us, the opportunity to ask the big questions of Life. But sadly, inorganic life, not considered to be Life at all, falls back into the shadows, where it worked unperturbed and shrouded in secret until science began to shine the light on it. Moon, stars and sun have lit up the days and nights, showing us that inorganic life was never hiding, we just did not know what to make of it and, in our ignorance, we still struggle to comprehend that evolution grows not just linearly, like a chain of events, but dimensionally too and just like organic life, it branches off from the main trunk, into other realms.
With the cell the path of evolution of organic life is set and its unfolding diversity is mapped out in the ‘Tree of Life’ concept. It will not be further pursued here since the history of organic life is not the topic. Inorganic life of course does not lose any of its importance either, nor can it ever be obsolete. Generally, categorizing serves a purpose that we can use and enjoy, but unification is the goal, bringing back the harmony all humans seek. The true scientist may have an advantage, for he grasps the magic of Life in a broader sense, but it is not a given, too many of them and most of us get lost in details. (See part 3)