Directionally Challenged

Origin of life research is generally conducted in two different, but related, ways: “bottom-up” and “top-down.” “Bottom-up” researchers seek a combination of chemical reactions that could have yielded a simple, first life-form on the early Earth. “Top-down” researchers seek to understand the simplest of contemporary life-forms, primarily by ascertaining their minimum genome requirements.1 Pathways forged by “bottom-up” and “top-down” camps theoretically meet somewhere in the middle to catch a glimpse of the first-life’s mysterious appearance as well as its transition into the no-less-elusive last universal common ancestor (LUCA).

Both routes must reckon with the empirically determined essentials of life: energy production and metabolism (including catalysts and/or enzymes), information-bearing replicating molecules (including translation mechanisms), and a cell barrier to partition off life from non-life (yet allow interaction with the external environment). Befuddled by simplest life’s innate complexity, both camps would desire to simplify their labors by jettisoning any nice-but-unnecessary, auxiliary cellular functions in order to find a “basic” unit of life that is relatively simple.

Bottom-up researchers are continually plagued with the finding the appropriate prebiotics in realistic concentrations and determining the mechanisms by which they could all come together to successfully produce living cells given the conditions of the early Earth. First, they possess an inadequate knowledge of such conditions, and what they do know seems to mitigate against life. To make matters worse, each hypothetical (and often convoluted) chemical pathway thought to produce a single nascent necessity seems to work against other pathways that lead to products no less important. Yet, all the parts seem to have arrived simultaneously to work in concert rather quickly – a little too quickly. Finally, there is the perpetual problem of the experimenters themselves, who continuously inject their own intelligent influence to purportedly produce a naturalistic outcome. Bottom-up researchers are therefore caught in a maddening loop that still yet lacks life.

Whereas the bottom-up approach seeks a feasibly authentic origin of Earth-life starting from simple chemical compounds, the top-down approach starts with existing organics and bioinformation and seeks to gain mastery over it. A comprehensive knowledge of the life’s minimum genome requirements not only allows an enhanced characterization of LUCA, but it also affords the opportunity to refashion life into new, synthetic forms. These scientists seek not only enlightenment but empowerment. Life can be stripped down and refurbished for specific purposes such as the production of tailored biomedical compounds or renewable energy resources.”2 Like those pursuing a bottom-up approach, these top-down researchers also search out the mechanisms required to build biomolecules, but they are less concerned about the chemical history of “life as we know it.” All available ingenuity, materials, and technologies are fair play when constructing “life as it could be.”3

If top-downers could successfully synthesize a living cell “from scratch” (simple, inorganic compounds) as they are instructed in the lessons of life by today’s simplest organisms, this would provide a much-desired proof-of-principle for the bottom-up researchers; it would show that life can be constructed from chemicals. For now, however, these researchers can fundamentally change the characteristics of existing cells, but they must rely heavily on existing organics and bioinformation.  Quite remarkably, Craig Venter’s team at Synthetic Genomics, Inc., have apparently transformed Mycoplasma capricolum into Mycoplasma mycoides by implanting a synthetic genome of the former into the latter. 4 They cannot yet initiate life, though they soon might.  Even so, though the nature of the physical world may be further elucidated, the necessity of intelligent agency will be simultaneously affirmed. Scientists may manipulate existing matter and information systems in ways that produce physical life demanding at least hundreds of genes,5 but this is a minimum complexity that is still uncomfortably complex from a naturalistic, bottom-up perspective. Yet according to Scripture, various forms of life are more than merely physical and may also manifest that which is soulish and spiritual.6 When scientists look beyond where empiricism can probe, they may find more meaning in the mysteries than the mechanisms.

“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. The wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.’ So let no one boast in men.” 1 Corinthians 3:18-20

1 Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), Chapter 3.*
2 Ibid, Chapters 3-4.*
3 Ibid, Chapter 4.*
4 Ibid, Chapter 3.*
5 Ibid.
6 Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Origins of Life: Biblical and Evolutionary Models Face Off (Covina, CA: Reasons to Believe, 2014), 79.
*Page numbers not available in Kindle edition.