By James Knauer
This is the first of a three-part series dealing with life, its constituency, and some prophesy regarding its future here on Earth.
It’s worth checking in on abiogenesis, the self-assembly of life from nonliving matter. Life thrives at the margins of the universe. Don’t wash your shower tiles to see this within a month. Lovers of wetness and dank, mold and mildew will certainly find a home in the grout, as the air is thick with their spores. We find microscopic life on and within Earth no matter where we look. No environment is too harsh. If weighed, over 90% of all life by mass on the planet lives within the first ten miles of Earth’s crust, and the vast majority of that is single-celled organisms. We’re evidently that green fuzz growing on the moist, salty rind.
Abiogenesis concerns itself with where and how this all began.
Our solar system’s location has played a huge part in the rise of life on Earth. A spherical shell centered on our sun known as the Oort Cloud spans nearly two light years in diameter, the icy outer remnants of Sol’s ignition and coalescence of planets. Spherical is the key. Undisturbed at the largest scale, even after over four billion years, and having orbited the entire galaxy nearly 20 times. Which is not to say the Oort Cloud is some magical shield – standing on any one body you’d need a powerful scope to see the nearest neighbor – rather it’s a piece of evidence that Sol is located within a star desert. This isolation has given evolution virtually free reign on our planet to select traits based on changes in environment, many of which appear repeatedly within the record, with vast stretches of time to tinker and refine. This tends to point in the direction of a larger scale construction that is independent of any one species.
Because it can all begin with a single cell, such as the one that carried its genetic code into the year of this article’s publication, such that I, the fleshy bit, can bring it to you.
We’re All Moochers
To get here, we all had to pass through the humble sea sponge. Sometime about 700 million years ago, sponge-like single-celled organisms evolved the trait of obtaining energy from dead microbial matter, which would otherwise rot and consume oxygen. This caused oxygen levels in the oceans to slowly rise, fueling a huge expansion of cellular metabolism, allowing the sponge to eventually burst out of the microscopic world, and into our macro awareness. Genetic analysis of present-day sponges suggests a common heritage across all life which has emerged since.
So where did the single-cell sponge precursors come from? For that, we look to the ocean floor in areas where the Earth’s crust is thin and pulling apart, opening vents from which magma can escape. Volcanism has been a feature of Earth’s existence since its emergence, and so once there were oceans, thought to have formed within a few hundred million years after the formation of the moon, the stage was set.
The margin was at the line between Earth’s primordial acidic oceans and undersea volcanic vents, which create a shroud of alkali ocean water around them. Across that barrier, energy can be expended or conserved, given the right chemical reactions. Volcanic vents were spewing these chemicals all over the ocean floor, and saturating them with heat from below. It wasn’t long before a chain of chemical processes led to the ancestors of cyanobacteria and their cousins, which first appeared within 500 million years of the oceans settling.
Life appears to have been on Earth for most of its history. Such oceanic/volcanic margins likely exist in the other oceans within our own solar system, in places like Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, and Enceladus, moons of gas giants that undergo flexion due to tidal friction. Until the discovery of black smokers in the oceans of Earth, the margins required for abiogenesis were thought to exist primarily on the surfaces of worlds that retained liquid water, giving rise to the notion of a “Goldilocks Zone”, a thin range of space around a star where just the right conditions would occur. Earth’s lesson remains life is unlikely to obey such narrow characterizations. Rooted in geologic time, deep-sea abiogenesis avoids erratic solar radiation, inhospitable surface climate, and the relentless bombardment from space rocks that continues to threaten Earth life. Even after mass extinction events, Earth’s ocean life carried on.
The oceans occur because the universe seems to be quite wet in spots by its nature. Water is a stable molecule over long periods. Ices in the remote Oort Cloud could very well predate the formation of our solar system. So long as there has been stardust – 13.7 billion years give or take an epoch – these processes have been ongoing. And this does not include forms of life of which our awareness would be exceedingly dim, such as those residing deep within gas giants, lava words, or even in stars themselves. Wherever there is an imbalance between two otherwise separate homogeneous environments, life, chemically speaking, has a chance.
The great Larry Niven wrote a series of science fiction novels called called Fleet of Worlds that dealt in no small part with the evolution of intelligent space-faring life that arose from undersea hot spots on a moon circling a gas giant. I won’t spoil a THING, other than “compelling.”
Stem Cells Arrive
Once the sponge broke into the macro world, it was presented with a host of issues to resolve. Moving from a single-cell to a more complex organism required the evolution of networks to support it, to bring in nutrients, and expel wastes. Interior cells could no longer directly “eat”, and so their chemical makeup changed away from those on the exterior, differentiating their functions. As these networks evolved, they too became more complex, carrying blood, lymph, bile, and bowel. Nervous systems arose as outgrowths of the electrical processes that govern the lives of cells, and they added their skeins to the tapestry.
Reproduction at first occurred asexually, creating essentially little, virtually identical versions of the bigger organism. As time went on, evolution found a niche in which to exploit sexual reproduction as a survival method. Non-identical offspring increased the chances of survival through the local randomization and assignment of traits that took place during the fertilization of the zygote.
It should be noted that the zygote itself is not a stem cell. These do not emerge until five to seven days after fertilization, for example, in the case of humans. They require the zygote first divide, grow, and differentiate into the three cell layers needed for a body to take shape: endogerm, mesogerm, and ectogerm. When these three layers are present, stem cells then appear, and they can make any cell belonging to each layer. A person will ultimately develop several thousand stem cells toward adulthood, losing them with age. Unlike their embryonic cousins, adult stem cells have more limitations due to their long-term existence, leaving them open to disease and degradation. Further, there are limits to the kinds of tissue adult stem cells can natively produce.
Stem cells have the real promise to first ease symptoms of aging and disease, and then later wipe them out completely using one’s own cells and their defenses. All of these processes remain largely fantastic, known in detail by very few humans indeed. Early results are the stuff of science fiction, things such as 3D printed replacement organs, made to order. Science has no intention of stopping this quest.
What is clear is the ancient processes of life cannot be given away, nor taken away, describing the fundamental definition of inalienable.
So, the question for Americans rightly remains:
H.R.2433, introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013, would open the door to responsible research into stem cell therapies. A version of it has been introduced in Congress since 1974, but instead of expanding research, Congress has effectively shut it down, ostensibly for religious reasons. It has created a dubious black market only the wealthy can access.
And what compelling interest has the State when it comes to people feeling better, living longer, and even rejuvenating? None whatsoever. One does not need the stem cell debate to understand Terror, Inc. (TM) was created to keep Americans in dreadful fear of ghosts, tribal cults, and each other’s motives, while strangling the very debates we must have to exit this madness. What issues are more serious than personal health? At what point does this forced suffering exceed the avarice of those who refuse to govern?
What will longevity do to, say, the retirement age? Actuarial tables? Work ethic, since I now have “all this time?” What long-established industries from insurance companies to geriatric support services to retirement communities won’t be disrupted by the serious lack of new old people? Or even sick people in any numbers that matter to the economy? It won’t happen overnight. Right? We are going to need to carefully debate these things. And there won’t be time.
Science in 2014 is welded to Moore’s Law, and those who are about to take the reigns of power are going to have completely different ideas on how to approach stem cells, among other topics, particularly when social media brings the issue – and the results – to a personal level, pretty much immediately. They see the world as information, including life. And that means software.
And so a question is coming for those who dare to age: will you take the treatment?
In the next part of this series, we’ll explore life as software, and why this will pretty much turn life as we know it on its ear. You can read that here.
Resources Not Linked Above
Nature, Stem Cell Debate in America
EuroStemCell, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma
Discovery, Cassini Watches Clouds Blow Over Titan’s Sea