ScienceDaily (Feb. 25, 2009) — Researchers in the field of synthetic biology are still a long way from being able to assemble living cells from scratch in the laboratory. But according to biochemist David Deamer of the University of California, Santa Cruz, their efforts are yielding clues to the mystery of how life began on Earth…

According to Deamer, life began with complex systems of molecules that came together through the self-assembly of nonliving components. A useful metaphor for understanding how this came about, he said, can be found in combinatorial chemistry, an approach in which thousands of experiments are carried out in parallel by robotic devices…

The power of combinatorial chemistry lies in the vast numbers of structurally distinct molecules that can be synthesized and tested at the same time. Similarly, conditions on the early Earth allowed not only the synthesis of a wide variety of complex organic molecules, but also the formation of membrane-bound compartments that would have encapsulated different combinations of molecules.

“We have made protocells in the lab–artificial compartments containing complex systems of molecules,” Deamer said. “The creationists charge that it’s too unlikely for the right combination to have come together on its own, but combinatorial chemistry gives us a better way to think about the probability of life emerging from this process.”…

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I have to wonder how using robots to programmatically conduct combinatorial chemistry experiments has much of a bearing on the idea of a random, naturalistic origin of life. Did these robots exist on earth in the distant past, conducting carefully laid out experiments and trying to create life? The presumption seems to be that since we can find different molecular structures by using robots to go through various combinations of chemical reactions, that the conditions on earth when life originated were unfathomably diverse – diverse enough to conduct trillions upon trillions upon trillions (…ad nauseum) of distinct experiments, sufficient to account for some form of (as yet undefined) molecular structure capable of reproduction (by some means) that would eventually lead (somehow) to the complex form of life that we observe today. It seems more realistic, however, to admit that there could only be a limited amount of variety in any presumed primitive, pre-biotic earth, and thus, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as much variety as Dr. Deamer could hope for.

But apart from that, combinatorial experiments are limited by several factors which seem unaccounted for in this article: maximal environmental variety (as mentioned), time, energy, and the effects of cross-reactions during and after the main chemical reaction(s). Beyond that, though, it is quite possible that even given an infinite energy source, and an infinite amount of time that no natural series of chemical reactions using the elements available on earth could possibly generate any system capable of what Dr. Deamer suggests. To assert that it could on the assumption that the origin of life must have happened naturally does not solve the problem. No reasonable model for the origin of life has been proposed without using the unproven assumption that time+chance+matter=life necessarily.

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