How Simple Can Life Be?
First published 29 Sep 1997; last updated 15 Mar 2021.
In Darwin’s day, many people swallowed the theory of spontaneous generation—that life arose from non-living matter. It was somewhat easier to believe because the cell’s structure was almost unknown. Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s popularizer in Germany, claimed that a cell was a ‘simple lump of albuminous combination of carbon.’1 (Haeckel was also a notorious fraud—he forged embryonic diagrams to bolster the erroneous idea that the embryo’s development recapitulated (re-traced) its alleged evolutionary ancestry)2.
But modern science has discovered vast quantities of complex, specific information in even the simplest self-reproducing organism. Mycoplasma genitalium has the smallest known genome of any free-living organism, containing 482 genes comprising 580,000 bases.3 Of course, these genes are only functional with pre-existing translational and replicating machinery, a cell membrane, etc. But Mycoplasma can only survive by parasitizing more complex organisms, which provide many of the nutrients it cannot manufacture for itself. So evolutionists must posit a more complex first living organism with even more genes.
More recently, Eugene Koonin and others tried to calculate the bare minimum required for a living cell, and came up with a result of 256 genes. But they were doubtful whether such a hypothetical bug could survive, because such an organism could barely repair DNA damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive supply of organic nutrients in its environment.4
Yet even this ‘simple’ organism has far too much information to be expected from time and chance, without natural selection. The information theorist Hubert Yockey calculated that given a pool of pure, activated biological amino acids, the total amount of information which could be produced, even allowing 109 years as evolutionists posit, would be only a single small polypeptide 49 amino acid residues long.5 This is about 1/8 the size (therefore information content) of a typical protein, yet the hypothetical simple cell above needs at least 256 proteins. And Yockey’s estimate generously presupposes that the many chemical hurdles can be overcome, which is a huge assumption, as shown by many creationist writers.6
NB: natural selection cannot help, as this requires self-replicating entities—therefore it cannot explain their origin.
In 2004, another estimate claimed that only 206 genes were needed.7 A 2014 paper summarized their work instructively, showing that even this entails enormous complexity:
This minimal gene set included genes for:
- DNA replication, repair, restriction, and modification;
- a basic transcription machinery;
- aminoacyl-tRNA synthesis;
- tRNA maturation and modification;
- ribosomal proteins;
- ribosome function, maturation, and modification;
- translation factors;
- RNA degradation;
- protein processing, folding, and secretion;
- cellular division;
- transport; and energetic and intermediary metabolism (glycolysis, proton motive force generation, pentose phosphate pathway, lipid metabolism, and biosynthesis of nucleotides and cofactors).
Those authors did not include rRNA or tRNA genes, and they recognized that the basic substrate transport machinery could not be clearly defined, even though this minimal cell would rely greatly on the import of several substrates, including all 20 amino acids (for which it had no biosynthetic ability). Theoretical minimal gene sets will need to be tested in vivo to be qualified as minimal genomes.8
In 2006, “follow-up research led by Hamilton Smith at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville reveals that the minimum genome consists of 387 protein-coding and 43 RNA-coding genes.”9 The problem is even worse because of the interactome, the whole set of molecular interactions in a particular cell. This is also so precisely controlled that even if we had all the components, they still would not form into a living cell. A 2011 paper concluded:
A protein can undergo both reversible denaturation and hierarchic self-assembly spontaneously, but a functioning interactome must expend energy to achieve viability. Consequently, it is implausible that a completely “denatured” cell could be reversibly renatured spontaneously, like a protein. Instead, new cells are generated by the division of pre-existing cells, an unbroken chain of renewal tracking back through contingent conditions and evolving responses to the origin of life on the prebiotic earth. We surmise that this non-deterministic temporal continuum could not be reconstructed de novo under present conditions.10,11
- Cited in M.J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, p. 24, The Free Press, New York, 1996. Return to text.
- R.M. Grigg, Ernst Haeckel: Evangelist for evolution and apostle of deceit, Creation 18(2):33-36, 1996. Return to text.
- A. Goffeau, Life With 482 Genes; Science, 270(5235):445–446, 1995. Return to text.
- W. Wells, Taking life to bits, New Scientist, 155(2095):30–33, 1997. Return to text.
- H.P. Yockey, A Calculation of the Probability of Spontaneous Biogenesis by Information Theory, J. Theor. Biol., 67:377–398 , 1977. Return to text.
- C.B. Thaxton, W.L. Bradley, and R.L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, Philosophical Library Inc., New York, 1984, 2020; The Origin of Life: A Critique of Current Scientific Models’ J. Creation, 10(3):300–314, 1996; J.D. Sarfati, 1997 ‘Self- Replicating Enzymes?’ J. Creation 11(1):4–6, 1997; Origin of Life Q&A. Return to text.
- R. Gil, F.J. Silva, J. Peretó, and A. Moya, Determination of the core of a minimal bacterial gene set, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews® (MMBR) 68(3):518–537, Sep 2004 | doi:10.1128/MMBR.68.3.518-537.2004. Return to text.
- Joana C. Xavier, Kiran Raosaheb Patil, and Isabel Rocha, Systems biology perspectives on minimal and simpler cells, MMBR 78(3):487–509, Sep 2014 | doi:10.1128/MMBR.00050-13; list bullet formatting added for clarity. Return to text.
- Summary in Nature 439, 246–247 (19 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/439246a. Original paper John I. Glass, Nacyra Assad-Garcia, Nina Alperovich, Shibu Yooseph, Matthew R. Lewis, Mahir Maruf, Clyde A. Hutchison III, Hamilton O. Smith, and J. Craig Venter, Essential genes of a minimal bacterium, PNAS 103(2):425–430, 2006 | doi:10.1073/pnas.0510013103. Return to text.
- Peter Tompa and George D Rose, The Levinthal paradox of the interactome, Protein Science 20(12): 2074–2079, Dec 2011 | doi:10.1002/pro.747. Return to text.
- James Tour, Cell Construction & Assembly Problem // A Course on Abiogenesis, Episode 12.2/13, youtube,com, 9 Mar 2021. Return to text.