Overview:

Evidence for a naturalistic account of the start of life has long been sought in the lab. New research looks to support naturalistic abiogenesis.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Research from the University of Tokyo has “provided the first empirical evidence that simple biological molecules can lead to the emergence of complex lifelike systems” as they created an RNA molecule that “replicates, diversifies, and develops complexity, following Darwinian evolution.”

This is the holy grail of naturalism—abiogenesis—not the diversification of life itself but the start of it. It has long been hypothesized that there was a period of time in which self-replicating RNA molecules proliferated before the evolution of DNA and proteins, themselves the building blocks of life.

The idea is that about 4 billion years ago, these existing RNA molecules started to self-replicate, becoming more diverse and complex, eventually leading to the creation of life.

“The results could be a clue to solving the ultimate question that human beings have been asking for thousands of years—what are the origins of life?”

One of the missing pieces of evidence for this theory is that we have not been able to replicate this process in the lab. However, this may now have been achieved, as reported in a study published in Nature Communications. Project Assistant Professor Ryo Mizuuchi and Professor Norikazu Ichihashi at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo, and their team, carried out a long-term RNA replication experiment in which they witnessed the transition from a chemical system towards biological complexity.

“We found that the single RNA species evolved into a complex replication system: a replicator network comprising five types of RNAs with diverse interactions, supporting the plausibility of a long-envisioned evolutionary transition scenario,” said Mizuuchi.

What made this experiment different from others because the research team used a unique RNA replication system that could undergo Darwinian evolution—a self-perpetuating process of continuous change based on mutations and natural selection. This enabled different characteristics to emerge, and the ones that were adapted to the environment were able to survive.

“Honestly, we initially doubted that such diverse RNAs could evolve and coexist,” Mizuuchi added. “In evolutionary biology, the ‘competitive exclusion principle’ states that more than one species cannot coexist if they are competing for the same resources. This means that the molecules must establish a way to use different resources one after another for sustained diversification. They are just molecules, so we wondered if it were possible for nonliving chemical species to spontaneously develop such innovation.”

This exciting discovery should lead to further work. According to Mizuuchi, “The simplicity of our molecular replication system, compared with biological organisms, allows us to examine evolutionary phenomena with unprecedented resolution. The evolution of complexity seen in our experiment is just the beginning. Many more events should occur towards the emergence of living systems.”

This, along with understanding the existence of the universe, is the last hope for theists in their insistence that only God explains life, the universe, and everything. As Mizuuchi states, “The results could be a clue to solving the ultimate question that human beings have been asking for thousands of years—what are the origins of life?”

My money’s on naturalism: It’s the horse that keeps on winning. It’s rather foolish to back the horse that loses every single time.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...