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Feedback archive Feedback 2001

Self-made cells? Of course not!

This week’s positive feedback (from J.H. of Florida, USA.) provided an ideal opportunity to discuss the latest evolutionary claim. Dr Jonathan Sarfati of CMI–Australia gives CMI’s official response …

The headline to the article caught my eye because of its rather shocking claim: ‘Self-made cells show life could originate in space’. [Ed. note (added 18 Feb 2001): this link has apparently been pulled from CNN’s website since this feedback and response were first written, but essentially the same story is in Ref. 2 and Ref. 3] Wow! Self-made cells … That’s something I’d like to read about! So I click the link — located prominently at the top of CNN’s Web site — to see what the story is. In years gone by, I would’ve found nothing wrong with the headline, even after reading the article. Thanks in no small part to [your ministry], though, I now have a much more critical eye.
What’s this article about? Scientists have managed to create bubbles in a lab. Bubbles. Not ‘cells’, as the headline claims. Bubbles that ‘looked very much like a … cell membrane.’ The scientists, through their active imaginations and a faith which apparently far exceeds my own, have surmised that perhaps such bubbles could’ve housed early life. To ‘prove’ this, they’re injecting DNA and RNA into them and ‘feeding’ them to see what happens. A perfect example of using copious quantities of intelligent design in an effort to prove that there’s no intelligent design to life.
Pardon my skepticism, but it seems to me by the way the article is written that these experiments PROVE NOTHING WHATSOEVER. How on earth CNN came up with the headine for this one is beyond me. I guess many scientists have given up on proving that life originated on earth, and are now hoping that space holds the answers. At least they’re on the right track by looking towards the heavens …

Jonathan Sarfati comments: well put!

This particular experiment1 produced some membranes, but they are a purely physical phenomenon like soap bubbles, lacking the complex pumps found in real cell membranes. Bubbles will form readily with any molecule that has one end that ‘loves’ water (hydrophilic) and another end that ‘fears’ water (hydrophobic). Such amphiphilic (amphi– from Greek = ‘both’) molecules will tend to align on the interface between water and any other phase, with the hydrophilic ends in the water and the hydrophobic ends away from it. Soaps and detergents are well-known types of amphiphilic substances, and they illustrate one useful property: the molecules will surround an oil droplet with the hydrophobic ends sticking in, while the hydrophilic ends stick out into the water. So instead of being repelled by the oil droplet, the droplet is surrounded by the ‘water-loving’ heads of the molecule, and now can be washed away.

So, even granting that the simulation was realistic (despite the intelligent input by the investigators, e.g. sophisticated separation techniques to isolate the amphiphilic component), the headlines2,3 would have been more accurate if they had said ‘Detergent could have been produced in space!’ — but even a more sensationalist headline like ‘Spage age Soap!’ would probably neither sell newspapers, gain NASA funding, nor promote the desired humanistic world view!

Paul Davies, author of The Fifth Miracle, and an anti-creationist, pointed out that a cell membrane is far less of a problem than generating the encyclopedic information content needed to code for all the large molecules needed for life. This is the same point he made in a recent article in New Scientist, as we documented in Quantum leap of faith: Paul Davies and the origin of life. Commenting on the current experiment, Davies said:

Bricks are easy to make, because they are simple. Houses are hard because they involve elaborately organized complexity. The same goes for life. The cell membrane is about the simplest feature of the lot.’4

To learn more about other attempts to create ‘life’ in the laboratory, please see our Origin of Life Q&A.

References and notes

  1. The original paper is Dworkin, J., Deamer, D., Sandford, S., and Allamandola, L., Self-assembling amphiphilic molecules: Synthesis in simulated interstellar/precometary ices, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 98(3):815–819, 30 January 2001; see online overview. Return to text.
  2. Burton, K., NASA Scientists Find Clues That Life Began in Deep Space, NASA Ames Research Center—News Release: 01-06AR, 26 January 2001. Return to text.
  3. Scientists Find Clues That Life Began in Deep Space, NASA Astrobiology Institute Features Archive, 30 January 2001. Return to text.
  4. Davies, P.; cited in Britt, R.R., Life-Like Cell Walls Created in Deep Space Lab Conditions,, 29 January 2001. Return to text.

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