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Amino acids produced in hydrothermal vent?

Does this help chemical evolution?

Published: 25 April 2020 (GMT+10)
Tryptophan structure

Materialists must believe that life arose from non-living chemicals by chemical evolution. This remains an intractable problem for materialists, because they can’t invoke natural selection as they do, however implausibly, for biological evolution. While natural selection is a proven fact discovered by creationists before Darwin, it means differential reproduction, so it can’t be used to explain how the first self-reproducing entity arose. So evolutionists can invoke only time, matter, and energy, not natural selection.

But from time to time, we receive questions about papers that purport to prove that chemical evolution is possible. One way to look at them is that they are concessions to the fact that previous papers had not solved the problem. Similarly, when an article claims to have found “the missing link”, we must wonder whether previous claims to find the missing link were valid.

The following is an example of a recent inquiry about an origin-of-life paper. Dr Jonathan Sarfati answers both the general principles and this specific case.

Hello, I read almost anything you post in, but an atheist friend asked me about this article.1

This claims:

a natural chemical reaction that occurs below the sea floor makes the amino acid tryptophan without biological input. This finding reveals a process that might have helped life on Earth to begin.

Could you guys help me to this answer?

Thank you for writing to CMI about this 2018 article, which is a comment on this paper.2

First, my colleague Shaun Doyle has written a helpful article for anyone encountering articles like this: Reading ‘origin of life’ research: How to read the secular literature on chemical evolution (i.e. ‘abiogenesis’) critically. We would like all inquirers to consult this, because it would not only help with the paper in question, but future papers as well.

Second, my colleague Dr Don Batten has written a comprehensive overview of the problems of chemical evolution (‘abiogenesis’). Abiotic production of amino acids, as claimed in the paper you sent, is the first of the hurdles and maybe even the least difficult, which says a lot about the difficulty of the remaining steps.


Miller–Urey experiment

When it comes to the paper in question, even if tryptophan were formed under such conditions, how long would it last, given that biomolecules are unstable at high temperatures? We wrote about this a while back— Hydrothermal origin of life? As evidence for instability, we cited the famous chemical evolution pioneer Stanley Miller, of the eponymous Miller–Urey experiment.

It’s notable that the original paper tacitly agreed with this problem:

These spectral features are indicative of the presence of tryptophan to which the band at 358 nm can be assigned, and of indole, skatole and hydroxyanthranilic acid, the fluorescence spectra of which were reported previously. These three latter compounds may correspond to products of either natural or UV-induced degradation of tryptophan, although indole can also be an intermediate in the abiotic synthesis of tryptophan. (Italics added, references omitted.)

Note that they wouldn’t find what they agree are likely breakdown products of tryptophan unless this in fact was breaking down!

Another statement in the paper reveals another problem: life requires a huge number of different types of biomolecules, but no experiment produces more than a small fraction of these. The required conditions to produce some essential biomolecules are incompatible with those needed to produce others. For example, alkaline solutions, such as proposed in this scenario, would hydrolyze the amino acids serine, threonine, cystine, cysteine, and arginine3, and destroy aldose sugars—including ribose and glucose—via the Cannizzaro reaction, which converts two molecules of an aldehyde to an alcohol and an acid. These destructive processes would occur much more quickly at hydrothermal temperatures. In this case, it was the absence of certain biomolecules that was used as evidence that the tryptophan was produced abiotically:

In all the areas where saponite and fragment ions characteristic of tryptophan were detected, TOF-SIMS analysis did not provide any evidence for the presence of biomarkers, such as hopanoids, cholestane, pristane, squalane, lycopene, or ß-carotane, which are constituents of marine-dissolved organic carbon or of deep microbial communities.

Thus I think these scientists have made a strong case for abiotic production of tryptophan. But in making this case, they have shown why this is irrelevant for chemical evolution—so few of the required biomolecules are produced!

The paper also shows a major problem with this and many other papers purporting to find the ‘building blocks’ of life. That is, they are not in fact building anything! One reason is instability of building blocks in general, not just tryptophan as noted above. Another one is how they would join up to form proteins — see Origin of life: the polymerization problem.

In that article you sent me, another problem is hinted at. The author suggested some follow-up research:

To extend Ménez and co-workers’ report of the abiotic synthesis of tryptophan, future studies at Lost City should try to collect adequate volumes of fluid to determine a structural property, called chirality, of the tryptophan present. Molecules can exist in two mirror-image chiral forms. Synthesis of a molecule by a non-biological process generally results in equal proportions of these two forms [racemic mixture, racemate], whereas biologically synthesized amino acids are usually made in predominantly one form or the other [homochiral].

But this tacitly admits yet another problem: the origin of biological homochirality. It agrees that natural processes will produce a racemate—so much so that it would be diagnostic of abiotic origin. This would be good supporting evidence, but not conclusive. Homochiral biological forms can racemize, especially under high temp, and even more so if conditions are alkaline as per these conditions. This means that racemic tryptophan could have a biological origin.

This is a further difficulty for chemical evolution. Even if there were some way of obtaining homochiral amino acids from an original racemate, they would need to be used before they racemized.

Last, the conditions of hydrothermal vents are incompatible with conditions other chemical evolutionist claimed were necessary for origin of life. E.g. John Sutherland, whose claims about supposed prebiotic synthesis of nucleotides we have addressed elsewhere,4 argues that his own scenario would be impossible in a hydrothermal vent:

It is not definitive proof that the building blocks of biology arose in this way, but it is compelling and indicates that the requirements for these reactions to take place should be used to constrain geochemical scenarios on the early Earth. A requirement for ultraviolet irradiation to generate hydrated electrons would rule out deep sea environments. This, along with strong bioenergetic and structural arguments, suggests that the idea that life originated at vents should, like the vents themselves, remain “In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” The chemistry places certain demands on the environment of the early Earth: for example, the high concentrations of certain species through evaporation of solutions.5


This is an example of a point we emphasize: the difference is often not with the facts adduced by evolutionists, but their interpretation due to their different axioms or starting assumptions. In this case, the scientists have made a good case for abiotic production of tryptophan: multiple lines of evidence, and considering alternatives. The difference is that they interpret these facts as supportive of chemical evolution; a better interpretation of the same facts is that they show how life could not have evolved under these conditions.

References and notes

  1. Baross, J.A., The rocky road to biomolecules, Nature, News and Views, 7 Nov 2018. Return to text.
  2. Ménez, B. and 8 others, Abiotic synthesis of amino acids in the recesses of the oceanic lithosphere, Nature 564:59–63, Nov 2018 | doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0684-z. Return to text.
  3. Thaxton, C. et al., The Mystery of Life’s Origin: the continuing controversy, p. 105, Discovery Institute Press, 2020. This is an updated and expanded edition of the 1984 book The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories—see review by Dr Ralph Matthews, J. Creation 9(1):55–26, 1995. Return to text.
  4. See also: Origin-of-Life researcher admits, It’s “A Long, Long Way to LUCA”,, 3 July 2017. Return to text.
  5. Sutherland, J.D., Studies on the origin of life—the end of the beginning, Nature Reviews Chemistry 1:12, 2017. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Greatest Hoax on Earth?
by Dr Jonathan Sarfati
US $16.00

Readers’ comments

Stephen G.
My chemistry PhD was with optically active metal complexes. The starting point for my separation of racemates into their resolved enantiomers was always with homochiral molecules derived from biological systems (i.e. from our creator!).
All CMI supporters, please dig deep for CMI—an important ministry.
Dr Stephen Grocott
Geoff C. W.
It's a shame (and embarrassing) to see such God-given talent of these research ‘scientists’ applied to vain and time-wasting (even life-wasting) attempts to prove that God does not exist. Not to mention the waste of the taxpayers’ money that supports this nonsense.
Frank G.
Once again, a supposed ‘proof’ of abiogenesis/evolution is nothing more than grasping at the latest random little straw that’s been spotted. Sorry, but if all you have are tiny, scattered hints that some miniscule parts of abiogenesis/evolution could be imagined to have almost begun happening, then you don’t have any actual evidence.
Dan M.
Oh look, I found a penny, I'm going to be a millionaire! Poking fun aside. This is what I think every time the Evo’s make another fantastic claim Based, (biased) on nothing. A couple of amino acids is nothing compared to the complexity of a living cell. Another thought I had recently was; Darwin entered the game way late in the story. Abiogenesis is 80% of the Evolutionist story of life which they don’t have! The diversification of species is observed and is acknowledged by both camps, Evolutionist and Creationist, although they differ in that creationists believe it started from different fully developed kinds created by God. From an evolutionist point of view, you must first have a working, living, cell, with ALL its complexity, (a miracle) and then an instruction set for complex multicellular body design (another miracle). Where did all this information come from? Darwin thought the cell was a bag of salts, so his hypothesis is outdated by at least 100 years or more.

Come on people! It’s time to abandon this failed hypothesis of evolution? It just cannot explain the beginning of life on earth, and even if they discover basic amino acids on asteroids or anywhere else, it is still not enough to explain organic life! I am often confused at how evolutionists can accuse me of having blind faith as a Christian creationist when it takes mountains of more faith to believe their story of origins? I praise God that He has revealed in these last days through dedicated Christian scientists and creationist evangelists, the truth of creation to those who would listen! Even if we can only convince one immortal soul of the truth, it’s all worth it!
Bart J.
In studying creation, I have questioned the evolution claim of biological origins of life. But have not seen any article on it. If life started from a single cell organism and developed into more complex cells, where do they get the different sexes? In other word wouldn’t two organisms have to develop simultaneously (one male, one female) to reproduce others of their kind? Not sure I posted this question correctly?
Jonathan Sarfati
See Evolution of sex, Ch. 11 of Refuting Evolution 2.

In a friendly 2009 interview about his book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins, the Apostle of Atheopathy, admitted that evolution has not solved every problem, and there are still “unsolved mysteries”:
Dawkins cited four of his favourites … during a talk at the University of Washington:

  1. The origin of life: It might surprise some of Dawkins’ critics to hear that he offers no explanation for what kick-started life in the first place. “That is a complete mystery,” he said. [See ch. 13 for why it's a major problem for his materialistic faith.]

  2. The origin of sex: Dawkins said scientists are also puzzling over “what sex is all about”—in evolutionary theory, that is. After all, sexual reproduction isn’t strictly necessary for the evolutionary process to do its thing. Some researchers surmise that sex helps weed out harmful mutations or provides more options for propagation. [This might go some way to explaining the persistence of sex, but not its origin.

  3. The origin of consciousness: Where does subjective consciousness come from? Dawkins sees this as the “biggest puzzle” facing biology. Scientists have their ideas, and one of the latest ideas is that consciousness serves as the Wi-Fi network for an assortment of ‘computers’ inside your brain. [Come again? That explains where it comes from?]

  4. The rise of morality: What drives us to do good, even for people we don’t even know? The expectation of reciprocity provides a partial explanation, but “it doesn’t account for the extremely high degree of moral behavior that humans show,” Dawkins said. He surmises that altruism might have arisen as a “mistaken misfiring” of neural circuits involved in calculating the mutual give and take among kin. [That might conceivably ‘explain’ an isolated example of altruism, but not its origin and widespread persistence (a person who sacrifices their life for someone else fails to pass on their gene for altruism, causing it to disappear). It also doesn’t prove that it it’s objectively right to act altruistically.

For more, see The Greatest Hoax on Earth?
John C.
Very informative and helpful article, Dr Sarfati! I took the time to search for the structural images of the three ‘leftovers’ mentioned in their quote: indole, skatole, and hydroxyanthranilic acid (all available from Wikipedia). I found these instructive, and could see how the researchers believed they might have leavings of the breakdown of tryptophan (though I agree, their presence in the absence of the parent chemical would indicate that the environment may be more suitable for the breakdown of tryptophan than the production of it!). Thank you very much.
Johan V.
In March 1994, Miller visited Belgium. In an Interview with a journalist, Miller was asked if his famous experiment has solved the problem of the origin of life out of dead matter. This is what Miller answered:
For a moment we thought we got hold of the secret of life and that it could only be a matter of fine tuning to reproduce the processes that would lead to the first primitive protocell. It has gone a bit slower, but the gene technology provides a new acceleration to provide insight into the countless substances and processes that take place in the living cell.

This is a very elegant way to say that the experiment failed and he doesn’t have a scientific based answer to the question how life originated from dead matter.
(Source: Belgium Newspaper De Standaard (The Standard) 03-24-1994.)
Chuck R.
It seems that using evolutionary terminology like “chemical evolution” and “abiogenesis” when discussing the origin of life is giving them too much intellectual allowance for their delusion as their belief and assertion is really nothing more than a dressed-up version of the long-ago proven wrong claim of spontaneous generation.
Jonathan Sarfati
Au contraire, it’s important to use the traditional term “chemical evolution”. Many evolutionists, when faced with the intractable problems of the origin of first life from non-living chemicals, trot out the mantra, “Abiogenesis is not part of evolution.” It most definitely is part of the “General theory of evolution”, and an essential part at that. Neo-Darwinian materialism, involving natural selection aka differential reproduction, presupposes at least two entities that can reproduce. So if these entities can’t arise in the first place, then Darwinian evolution is dead on the starting line.
Chuck R.
Dr Sarfati,
Chemical evolution and abiogenesis are both essentially one and the same as both propose that inorganic material somehow organized themselves to become organic and then life supposedly spontaneously arose from that combining, so my point is rather than giving evolutionary terminology some validity, let’s just call it for what it is—spontaneous generation.
My intent for doing so is that people would stop and realize that what evolutionists are promoting really is just a tricked-up version of spontaneous generation.
Jonathan Sarfati
I don’t disagree that chemical evolution is a form of spontaneous generation. Some evolutionists agree, e.g. as documented in this old Journal of Creation paper, A Brief History of the Theory of Spontaneous Generation. Those who think that the modern theory differs from the old one just downplay the enormous complexity of even the simplest living cell.
Archibald C.
The idea that all the basic building blocks of life started by a vat of chemicals in an ancient Earth is just ludicrous. Even as astronomical as the chances of getting any form of proteins or molecules by themselves are, the chances then of those working together to form even the most ‘simple’ of lifeforms is staggeringly high. To get information one needs a purpose for information, otherwise it’s as useful as having a sentence in an unknown language that no one can or has ever been able to read, it’s just gobbly gook. This by itself suggests an intelligent designer and should, scientifically speaking, exclude any form of origin theory that relies on naturalistic processes by itself.

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