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Wisconsin academy review (Summer 1995)

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  [p. 11]  

Standing Darwin's Wisdom on Its Ear? A Different Theory on the Origin of Life on Earth

Genome Press (579 D’Onofrio Drive, Madison, WI 53719; 608/833-5855), 1994. $29.95 hard cover. 635 pages, 0-9641304-0-8

Were did we come from? It seems such a simple question to carry such a monumental significance, and to have kept us stumped throughout human history. And yet after all these millennia the question remains unanswered — at least definitively. Despite the best efforts of generations of capable scientists, the origin of lift on Earth remains as great a mystery today as it was at the dawn of human curiosity. Much of our fascination with lift on Earth surely derives from its diversity: a seemingly endless variety of fantastic creatures, each playing an often mysterious part in a complex global interplay of survival. Life is drama, intrigue, splendor, grace, whimsy, passion — and so much more. Lift is beautiful, and it’s only natural for us to want to know where it came from.

Many theologians, secular philosophers, and poets — and even many scientists — have been content to answer the question abstractly, in terms of a divine spark that somehow transformed inanimate matter into living organisms. But such explanations tell us only “who” — not “how.” Science is obliged to characterize the “spark” and the “somehow,” whether or not the process can be attributed to divine intervention.

Thanks to this past century’s breathtaking advances in science and technology, we seem to have arrived at last at the outskirts of a definitive answer. Today we find ourselves pondering a mountain of scientific information extracted from the living world, and with it we can uncover new clues to the origin of life on Earth. Among the most significant of our observations is the fact that while there are many similar species that are essentially the variants of a single organism, there are numerous organisms that are unique and distinct. Many similar species of snails, for example, occur as slight variations of the same basic snail organism, while snails as a group are unique and absolutely distinct from other groups such as crabs. Most organisms exhibit unique body parts — distinct kinds of mouths, eyes, digestive systems, sensory organs, and other appendages — that are well suited

A black and white reproduction of a drawing, featuring a frog, a crab, a turtle an earthworm, a butterfly and a plant, showing that they are descended from the same source of origin

Book cover art by Susan Knapp.

  [p. 12]  

A black and white figure describing how different independently born creatures are evolved into distinct creatures

Each distinct creature with its own breeds, varieties, and similar species

Production of artificial breeds, natural varieties, and similar species

Different independently born creatures

Snails

Frogs

Spiders

Snail

Frog

Spider

Birth of Independent Creatures

PRIMORDIAL POND

Closed boundary of individual variations

to their organisms’ particular lives and environments. This complex scenario of wildly different organisms, from dragonflies and crabs to dinosaurs and blue whales, each uniquely suited to its environment, suggests strongly that some unifying principles must have governed their origins.

The search for these principles is among the most intriguing challenges ever to confront the human mind, probably because its denouement will explain who we are and where we came from. Any scientific answer to these questions should invoke plausible and logical mechanisms to explain the whole scenario of all life on Earth, in every detail — its origin, certainly, but also its history and future.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in his book Origin of Species in 1859, has been the most accepted theory for the origin and diversity of species on Earth for over a century. It has been one of the greatest concepts in biological science and has been the most convincing of all explanations given so far on the origin and diversity of creatures. Intense research in various disciplines has appeared to support this theory. Its basic components, natural selection and adaptation, seemed to finely explain not only the origin of species, but also the perfect fit of organisms to their environments and their relationships to each other.

Despite the fact that Darwin’s theory has been one of the most convincing explanations, it should be noted that there have been monumental problems with observed facts that go against the theory. In fact Darwin’s theory has never been proven in the past 130 years — although some scientists assume that it is well established based on some genetic and organismal similarities. There are many major scenarios of life on Earth that are unexplainable by evolutionary theory. For instance, according to the fossil record, multitudes of unique creatures abruptly originated in a simultaneous burst when multicellular life first originated on Earth. This cannot be explained based on evolutionary theory. The second problem is about classifying or grouping organisms based on assumed evolutionary connections among them. Organisms are classified into sets of similar organisms first. These groups are further arranged in a nested manner based on assumed evolutionary connections — many species into one genus, many genera into one family, Closed many families into one order, and so boundary of on. However, the larger groupings, or individual the “higher taxa,” are found to be variations unconnectable by evolution. If creatures on Earth had all originated by evolution from one original ancestral creature as the evolutionary theory states, then the higher taxa should be connectable by evolution. The third problem concerns the evolution of highly complex organs such as the eye. Many evolutionists themselves agree that it is far too difficult to evolve highly complex organs by evolutionary means.

Even with these crucial problems, Darwin’s theory works for some aspects of life’s scenario making one marvel at the beauty of the theory. There are scientists who completely believe in Darwin’s theory, there are those who are almost completely against the theory, and there are those who are in between. The presence of physical and genetic similarities among sets of organisms has been considered in recent times to be very supportive of Darwin’s theory of descent with modification. Thus, even those who very well understand the crucial problems existing for the theory are either ridiculed by those who strongly believe in the theory or ignored, for there is no other alternative scientific theory to the theory of evolution. People believe that even though Darwin’s theory of natural selection is able to explain the origin of creatures to some limited extent, somehow all organisms should have evolved from one original creature on Earth by some yet undiscovered evolutionary mechanisms. This is essentially the story of the theory of evolution in our society today. . . .

Darwin’s theory states that all organisms evolved ultimately from one or a few original organisms and gives a mechanism for the change of one organism into another. Darwin did not offer an explanation as to how the first organism could have originated from inanimate matter. He simply stated that life had been “originally breathed into a few forms or into one,” and that from so simple a beginning, endless forms have been and are being evolved. So far there has been no convincing explanation concerning the origin of the first one or a few organisms from inanimate matter, except for some nebulous and vague speculations.

  [p. 13]  

This prompted me to become very interested in the question of how life itself had originated. I took a molecular biology approach, studying sequences of DNA and proteins, to find out how the genes of the first creature could have originated. Based on already established facts about chemical evolution and simulation experiments, I was convinced that the genetic (DNA) sequences in the primordial pond on Earth (the pond where life is supposed to have originated) must have been random, and that they must have coded for the proteins of the first cells. With this in mind, I intensely studied the properties of random genetic sequences to understand how they might have coded for proteins. While studying this problem, it suddenly occurred to me that genes could have been abundantly available in the primordial pond, and genomes (collections of genes) of different organisms could have been assembled independently from this common pool of genes. It immediately showed that numerous creatures could have been born independently from the primordial pond without evolutionary connection. If so, I realized that this concept could solve the many problems unresolved by Darwin’s theory. I began investigating DNA and proteins, using the computer to simulate random sequences, to prove that genes could in fact occur in the primordial pond.


From the published results of experiments simulating primordial Earth conditions, I was convinced that the primordial genetic sequences had been random. If this were true, the primary question was: How could the very first genes have come about from these sequences, and code for proteins? Beginning in 1980, while at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, I spent a great deal of time studying genetic sequences trying to understand the problems of the origin of life. I became immersed in this problem and continued my extensive research in random sequences, comparing them with the sequences of living organisms. What I learned from these analyses convinced me that genetic material must have been abundant in the premordial pond, and that it must have consisted of random nucleotide sequences. Genes simply occurred by chance in these extremely long DNA sequences, from which they randomly recombined to produce the first cells.

I then came to realize that, given a sufficiently large pool of genetic sequences in the primordial pond, almost any gene could have occurred in it. If this had in fact been the case, then complete genomes — for unicellular and multicellular organisms alike — could have formed by the random assembly of these genes. If multiple copies of the same gene or multiple genes for the same function existed in the primordial pond, then several genomes capable of forming various organisms could have been separately and simultaneously assembled in it. This hypothetical scenario, if proven to be true, would explain the absence of the so-called “missing links” between successive organisms in the assumed evolutionary pathway, which could not be explained by Darwin’s theory.

Intrigued by the possibilities, and by their implications for evolution and modem biology as a whole, I began my investigations by devising methods to test the hypothesis using computer techniques. I analyzed the available genetic sequence information acquired from living organisms. A protein sequence database was available from the National Biomedical Research Foundation prior to 1980, and a DNA sequence database, which became a boon to my studies, was just being established in 1982. My proficiency in computer

A black and white figure describing a process of multicellular organisms becoming Organism A, B, and C

Dividing, “dormant” seed cells

Seed cell capable of producing a viable multicellular organism

Organism A

Seed cell capable of becoming a new multicellular organism

Organism B

Organism C

  [p. 14]  

programming helped me to formulate the right questions to ask concerning genetic sequences, and the computer began to rapidly deliver answers. I thus left experimental molecular biology behind to investigate these problems, and soon found myself devoting all of my time to this work using computers at the Division of Computer Research and Technology within the National Institutes of Health.

From the outset I understood that, if my hypothesis were true, then the primordial pond must have contained the complete genes for any given animal or plant, so that its genome could be directly assembled from these genes in the primordial pond. I worked out several details about how these genes could have formed from the primordial genetic sequences, which I assumed to be random. Over the next several years of extensive analysis I verified that my original assumptions were correct — that genes could in fact occur in the large sequence pool of the primordial pond. Computer simulations helped me to show that eukaryotic genes — those of all animals and plants — could occur directly in the random genetic sequences in a primordial pond, and that a vast number of genes could have assembled randomly into numerous genomes. I then determined the basic mechanisms by which different sets of genes could form distinct genomes from the gene pool of the primordial pond, leading to the independent birth of multitudes of organisms.


A black and white figure showing zygote split into cells leading to independent birth of organisms

Zygote

wings

abdomen

sex organs

left eye

right eye

MUTATION

stem cell for antenna

antenna

stem cell for leg

leg

The extensive series of observations and research I carried out over a period of twelve years form the basis for my theory of the independent birth of organisms. This can be briefly summed up in the following: It was discovered only in the late 1970s that eukaryotic genes were split into exons (coding sequences) and introns (intervening, unused sequences). This is one of the most important discoveries in genetics, and is crucial in understanding the origin of not only these genes but also of the genomes and indeed, the organisms. However, the reason for this split-gene architecture was not known for several years. In my work with random sequences, I found a reason why genes were split: If primordial DNA were random in sequence, and if genes simply occurred in the sequences, then the only way they could occur in the sequences was in a split form. Then useful genes, complete with their split architecture and without any need to be evolved from shorter coding sequences, could simply be selected from among those available genes in the primordial sequences and assembled into genomes. This indeed revealed several important facts to me: 1) the primordial sequences were random; 2) genes simply occurred in the primordial DNA; 3) the split nature of genes increased the probability of genes in the random sequences tremendously and made it possible for almost any gene to occur in the primordial pond’s random sequences; 4) because the first genes occurred with a split structure, the first cells were eukaryotic, directly assembling their genomes from the primordial pond; and 5) if the full complement of genes to make a genome of a multicellular organism were available in the primordial pond, then these principles enabled the direct leg assembly of these genes into not only a eukaryotic single-celled organism, but also into a seed cell, an egg like a zygote, which could give rise to a multicellular organism.

All these reasons enabled complex cells to appear, for instance a eukaryotic cell with a nucleus and other organelles, selecting and assembling all the   [p. 15]   required genes directly from the primordial pond. I could in fact show that the probability of forming the genomes of multicellular organisms is not too different compared to that for a unicellular organism. Likewise, the probability of independently assembling different genomes for many multicellular organisms is not very different from the probability of forming a genome for one multicellular organism, however anatomically complex an organism was, from worm to human. This is because there is not much difference in the complexities of the genomes of organisms at extreme ends of anatomical complexity. Therefore, if sufficient numbers of genes were available to make one viable genome in the primordial pond, it would inevitably enable the assembly of numerous genomes simultaneously, and consequently multitudes of diverse organisms. Since I made the original assumptions in formulating the new theory of the independent birth of organisms, the results and principles derived from my extensive computer studies involving simulations and sequence analyses over the next several years, along with a few already known principles, made it all too clear that the multitudes of diverse organisms on Earth must have originated separately in the primordial pond and that the logic of my theory must be correct.


Each creature that originated in the primordial pond has lived forever as fundamentally the same creature, diversifying only slightly to produce incidental variations of essentially similar species. Perhaps the greatest practical significance of this new theory lies in our recognition that new creatures will not and cannot evolve to replace organisms that become extinct. Except for similar variations of existing organisms, no new creatures will ever rise again! The fossil record confirms that no fundamentally new creatures have appeared on Earth in a very long geological time, and this is a sobering reminder that we must do everything humanly possible to preserve these beautiful creatures for future generations to cherish and enjoy.

The new theory is important because it breaks down the conventional barrier to biological thought: that all organisms on Earth evolved from one original ancestral creature. This new notion is likely to have significant ramifications because it brings out an entirely new way of thinking. Our new theory accommodates most of the evidence that cannot he reconciled with evolutionary theories, and paves the way for more meaningful biological and biomedical research. It seems likely to carry tremendous implications in research, education, and environmental protection, and in the general philosophy and culture of people, for it will significantly change the conventional Darwinian way of thinking in every walk of life. In the past several decades virtually all biological processes have been explained in terms of evolution, and several times in this century the concept has even been extended to sociology and economics, where the doctrine of “survival of the fittest” has been cited to justify a number of political agendas. Our theory of the independent birth of organisms stands all of this conventional wisdom on its ear.


Our explorations have shown us that the endless beauty of life on Earth appeared all at once. Incredible as it may seem, this immense splendor of the biosphere came into being in a geological instant. And it happened inevitably from the chemical reactions of a single primordial pond. . . . All living creatures suddenly erupted from that pond, and simply walked, swam, flew or flowered away to fill the earth with the awesome power and beauty of organic Nature.

At the dawn of life, Nature set the stage. Millions of diverse organisms arrived at the same time to play scene after scene in the complex ecological drama that unfolded. Even today, the original players remain virtually unchanged, although over the millennia many have permanently left the stage. This has been the truth of life on Earth from the beginning, and will remain the truth of life forever. We can only hope that these fresh insights into the origins of life on Earth will better equip us to preserve life in all its diverse glory and will motivate us to the task and sensitize us to its urgency. Let us not perturb Nature, lest more and more participants leave the stage. We must rededicate ourselves to forestalling the final curtain for as long as we can, so that our future generations may enjoy what we cherish today.

The Theory

Perhaps the greatest appeal of the new theory lies in its unification of biological processes into a single, coherent process at the molecular level, without any evolutionary connection of organisms. This may have significant ramifications in many facets of biological science and research. All of the common biological phenomena — commonality in genes, biochemical materials, and biological processes — in all of Earth’s unique creatures are independently derived from the organisms’ independent origins in the common primordial pond. The new theory reveals the immense power of the prebiotic processes in the primordial pond in giving rise to numerous unique creatures directly from it. It demonstrates that life was not an accident; its simultaneous expression in numerous independent creatures was an inevitable consequence of the biochemical richness of Earth’s primordial ponds.

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