Oil Droplets in Water = Life?

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Researchers at the University of Glasgow think they may be a step closer to creating synthetic life by producing what they termed an “evolving chemical system.” This is the gist of what they did. Droplets of oil of varying chemical compositions were placed in water. A robot monitored how the droplets moved and researchers classified the behavior of the droplets as division, movement, or vibration. The researchers then determined which of the droplets were “fittest” and used that chemical composition to make a second generation of droplets that the robot then selected again (for the same movements). After 20 rounds, the droplet behaviors were “more stable,” which the researchers believe mimics how natural selection works and could eventually lead to new behaviors and new chemical life forms.

I’m really struggling to see how this is any kind of progress towards synthetic life! How does selecting for the oil droplets’ natural, chemical-based movements going to lead to new behaviors and new chemical life forms? Natural selection only selects from what is pre-existing; it can’t create anything new, which is necessary for molecules-to-man evolution (and mutations can’t create these types of changes either).

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think of a similar chemical system, called protocells. They are claimed to be a plausible first cell which is necessary for the evolution of biological life. These “primitive cells” are self-assembled vesicles that form when phospholipids are placed in water. Phospholipids are a type of fat that have hydrophobic (water-hating) tails and hydrophilic (water-loving) heads. When placed in water the hydrophobic tails cluster together on the inside of the vesicle (minimizing their contact with water) with the hydrophilic heads composing the outside of the vesicle (maximizing their contact with water). The assembly of these protocells is based on nothing more than chemistry, much like when you mix oil and vinegar or water to make salad dressing, and has nothing to do with the formation of a cell or the origin of life.

I remember when I was a graduate student and working as a lab assistant at The Ohio State University teaching honors biology lab and we did an experiment to form protocells. The students had trouble getting protocells to form and were clearly unimpressed with the idea that this was supposedly how life began. If intelligent human beings can’t get these “primitive cells” to form, how could nature do it by random chance?

I had to laugh at Wikipedia’s statement in their entry for protocells: “Although a functional protocell has not yet been achieved in a laboratory setting, the goal to understand the process appears well within reach.” No, it is not “well within reach.” A living cell (synthetic or biological) requires information—information on how to grow, metabolize, reproduce, and respond to its environment. Information does not come about by random chance and certainly will not evolve from a bunch of fat globs in water, no matter how much selection or time occurs. For synthetic life, information must be added by an information giver (the scientists) and in very much the same way for biological life, information must be designed and created by the ultimate information giver, God.

Keep fighting the good fight of the faith!

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