Why Abiogenesis Is Impossible

Bruce Potter

This article is the result of more than a year of investigation on my part into the books and technical papers on abiogenesis. It is intended to be read in the context of my other articles on Evolution Overview and Problems With The Macroevolution Theory. If you want to read this article, but need a primer on genetics, see Genetics Home Reference primer or National Geographic’s genetics overview.

Abiogenesis is the theory that life spontaneously developed from nonliving matter by chance through purely natural means, without any outside force such as a deity. If you think about it, you realize that abiogenesis is not actually evolution at all, using the common definition of evolution (the gradual development of living organisms through random mutation and natural selection). Because natural selection requires that a self-replicating organism already exists, and random mutation requires genetic information (in the form of DNA) so there is something to mutate. There is nothing gradual about abiogenesis. If it is true, it had to, in a single step, go from random molecules to a very specific and complex combination of them that:

  1. Could draw energy from around it to fuel its processes
  2. Was able to reproduce
  3. Had some sort of genetic code that could mutate to sometimes accidently produce improvements that could be naturally selected

Once this first step was accomplished, then evolution could theoretically take over from there, but that first step is a huge one and must be accomplished in a single shot, albeit with lots of random attempts. So abiogenesis should not be lumped into the evolution category, but it is almost always included by evolutionists in the theory of evolution. (I suspect it is because that is the only way to have a complete theory of life that doesn’t include a deity.) So I will include it in my evolution discussion too.

As you will see, there are some serious problems with the theory.

Natural Chemical Reactions Work Against It

The theory of abiogenesis first and foremost makes the assumption that the chemical reactions that happen inside the cell (producing proteins, RNA, DNA, etc.) also naturally occur outside the cell. However this is not true, because without the assistance of cellular machinery, many of these reactions would be corrupted by lower energy reactions. “Undirected chemistry in a hypothetical primordial soup would have no chance of achieving even this minimal complexity [of life]. The alleged building blocks (amino acids) would not build the necessary long molecules needed for life; rather, the long molecules would break down. Many of the building blocks would not form at all, or would be too dilute and contaminated to be useful.” (Sarfati, 2014a, 30%) For example:

  • “The ribosome also makes sure that a protein grows linearly. Outside a machine, a growing peptide chain would easily form undesirable side branches, where side groups react with each other (e.g. the amino acids aspartic acid and glutamic acid have a –COOH branch that could react with the –NH2 branch on lysine or arginine). In industrial peptide synthesis, the side groups must be blocked by protecting groups, then unblocked when synthesis is finished by removing those groups. But in the alleged primordial soup, there were no organic chemists to do this at the right times.” (Sarfati, 2014b, 33%)
  • When linking amino acids to build a protein, “each amino acid must be activated to overcome an energy barrier that naturally prevents the linking up of adjacent amino acids in solution. The energy for this process comes from ATP. Then, a special enzyme called aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase (aaRS) bonds each amino acid, in two steps, to the correct tRNA.” (Sarfati, 2014b, 33%) Furthermore, the tRNA adaptors must be detachable once the amino acid has been joined to the end of the growing protein. The ribosome moves the mRNA along like a ratchet, and energy for detachment comes from another energy-storage molecule, GTP (guanosine triphosphate), which is in turn produced by a complex and tightly integrated and regulated machine (Truman, 2007).
  • In 2003, Wolfenden found a phosphatase in the cell, which catalyzes the hydrolysis (splitting) of phosphate bonds, that significantly magnifies the reaction rate. “This enzyme allows reactions vital for cell signalling and regulation to take place in a hundredth of a second. Without the enzyme, this essential reaction would take a trillion years, almost a hundred times even the supposed evolutionary age of the universe (about 15 billion years)! Yet, these enzymes, as well as all the other processes listed above, must exist in the very first replicating cell in order for that cell to survive and pass on the DNA, and the DNA must code for the very proteins required for those processes!” (Sarfati, 2014b, 35%; Lad, 2003)
  • Water tends to break proteins down into their constituent amino acids (hydrolysis) (Sarfati, 1998), and they would undergo destructive cross reactions with other chemicals (Bergman, 2002) in the alleged primordial soup.

“In the end, the chemistry of the cell is precise, constrained, controlled, and functional, and life could not exist without it being this way. The chemistry outside the cell is the opposite of what is needed for life to form. Abiotic chemistry is the antithesis of life. How, then, could it have led to the first living cell?” (Sarfati, 2014b, 39%)

Chicken-and-Egg Problems in Forming DNA

There are several challenges in forming DNA that make it highly unlikely that it would randomly form on its own:

  • “There are many different ways DNA can be damaged and there are specific enzyme complexes that deal with each type of damage, but what is even more challenging to the evolutionary model is that those enzymes are also coded in the DNA, yet DNA cannot be sustained in the cell without them. This is a chicken-and-egg problem par excellence! … let it suffice to say that DNA is the last thing one would ever expect early life to start using for information storage.” (Carter, 2014, 19%) This chicken-and-egg problem means that both the DNA and the correction mechanisms had to randomly appear together. Some evolutionists contend that initially there was a simpler information encoding mechanism, but they have not offered a realistic proposal that addresses the real world needs of cells: transfer of information to the parts of the cell that use it, duplication for reproduction, correction of errors, assistance with chemical reactions, etc.
  • “In every known self-reproducing organism on earth today, DNA stores biological information, but that information can’t be read without decoding machinery. The instructions to build this decoding machinery are themselves stored on the DNA. Is it possible to solve this vicious chicken-and-egg problem?” (Sarfati, 2014b, 30%) To elaborate: “Indeed, the origin of the genetic code is a vicious circle: protein machines are needed to read the DNA, but instructions to build these protein machines are themselves encoded on the DNA. Furthermore, they use energy, which requires ATP, made by the nano-motor ATP synthase. Yet this is encoded on the DNA as well, decoded by machines needing ATP! The proteins are the machinery, and the DNA is the reproductive material, yet both are needed at the same time for the cell to function at all. And of course, this would be useless without any information to reproduce.” (Sarfati, 2014b, 33%)

Infinitesimal Odds

These challenges just give you a sense of how complex it is to make even the simplest life. There are many more complexities not mentioned here that must be overcome by chance to form the simplest self-replicating organism. This results in the improbability of it all coming together at once being astronomical (literally). As with macroevolution, it is difficult to calculate the probability accurately due to the number of variables, but again, an upper bound on the probability of forming the simplest necessary DNA can be fairly easily calculated by ignoring the following factors (any of which would make it even less probable):

  • The DNA chicken-and-egg problems mentioned above.
  • Normal chemical reactions in the theorized primordial soup content would sidetrack the forming of proteins.
  • In a high percentage of the combination “chances”, the correct proportion of chemical compounds would not be in close enough proximity to react.
  • Other cellular machinery, in addition to the DNA, is necessary to sustain life.
  • Once these organisms are created, a high percentage of them would likely die before replicating due to not having a constant supply of the necessary nutrients nearby.
  • The chemical compounds needed are not generally found together in a majority of the universe.

With these assumptions artificially helping the evolutionary cause, we will calculate the probability of just one aspect of abiogenesis—placing the amino acids in the correct positions in the proteins needed for the simplest life:

  • At least 387 proteins made up of 20 different amino acids are required for the simplest self-replicating organism (Glass, 2006)
  • We will assume that of the 100 or more amino acids in a typical protein, on average it is critical that only 10 of the positions have the exact right amino acid. (Usually the number is much greater than this.)
  • Choosing from a list of 20 possible amino acids in each of 387 * 10 positions => 203870 = 105035 possible combinations.
  • Calculating the number of “attempts” to find the correct combination, based on the current scientific estimates for the age and size of the universe: 1080 atoms in the universe, 1012 atomic interactions per second, 1018 seconds since the origin of the universe => 10110 possible attempts
  • Combining the two yields a 1 in 104925 chance that over the entire history and space of the universe the simplest DNA needed for life would randomly form. (Sarfati, 2014b, 36%). That’s a 1 with almost 5000 zeroes after it, so essentially no chance of it happening.

Why would anyone base their scientific theory (or their worldview) on those odds?

As an aside, an analogy that has been used for evolution for a long time is the typing monkeys. The statement is that given enough time a group of monkeys hitting keys on typewriters (this shows how old this saying is) will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. But whoever originally came up with that apparently did not do the math: to have a 1:1,000,000,000,000 chance of randomly typing Hamlet, you would need the entire lifetime of 10360,641 universes like ours filled with as many typing monkeys as there are protons in the universes (Infinite monkey theorem:Probabilities). For some things, just having enough time isn’t actually enough, at least not in our universe.

No Realistic Proposed Scenario

As with macroevolution, there do not appear to be any specific realistic scenarios proposed as to how abiogenesis could have happened. For 13 years (2000–2013) the Origin-of-Life Science Foundation offered a $1 million prize to anyone providing a chemically plausible naturalistic solution for the origin of the genetic code and life. And yet, as stated on their web site:

Over the 13 years since The Origin of Life Prize was first announced in NATURE and SCIENCE, no submission has ever made it past the screening judges to higher-level judges. No submission has ever addressed, let alone answered, any of the questions below, for which the Prize offer was instituted. Most of these Prize-offer questions centered on: “How did inanimate, prebiotic nature prescribe or program the first genome?” (Origin of Life Prize)

A million dollars and the prestige that would accompany winning the prize seem like enough motivation for anyone with a realistic scenario to come forward, and yet no one has.

Conclusion About Abiogenesis

The real killer for the theory of abiogenesis is that even a relatively simple calculation shows that there was not enough time in the universe for even just one aspect of it to happen. The other difficulties of DNA naturally coming together just serve to make it even more impossible. And the fact that no one has even come close to demonstrating how this could happen, despite the research of many scientists for many years, just seals the deal. It is time for a new theory on how life began.


References

  • Bergman, J. (2002), Why the Miller– Urey research argues against abiogenesis, J. Creation 18( 2): 74– 84, 2002; creation.com/urey
  • Carter, R. (2014), Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels:Genetics and DNA, Creation Book Publishers, 2014 (Kindle version, so page references are given as % of book)
  • Glass, J.I. et al., Essential genes of a minimal bacterium, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 103( 2): 425– 430, 2006.
  • Jonathan Sarfati (2014), Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels:The Origin of Life, Creation Book Publishers, 2014 (Kindle version, so page references are given as % of book), see creation.com/gencode for details
  • Lad, C., Williams, N.H., and Wolfenden, R., The rate of hydrolysis of phosphomonoester dianions and the exceptional catalytic proficiencies of protein and inositol phosphatases, Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 100( 10): 5607– 5610, 2003.
  • Origin-of-Life Science Foundation, Origin of Life Prize
  • Sarfati, J. (1998), Origin of life: the chirality problem, J. Creation 12( 3): 263– 266, 1998; creation.com/chirality
  • Sarfati, J. (2014), Evolution’s Achilles’ Heels:The Origin of Life, Creation Book Publishers, 2014 (Kindle version, so page references are given as % of book)
  • Truman, R. and Borger, P. (2007), Genetic code optimisation: Part 1, J. Creation 21( 2): 90– 100, 2007; creation.com/gencode
  • Wikipedia, Infinite monkey theorem: Probabilities

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