First Life

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.

The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo

The Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo

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.

Black Smoker and Tube Worms

Black Smokers and Tube Worms

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.

Human Embryonic Stem Cell

Human Embryonic Stem Cell

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.

Inalienable Life

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?

Deoxyribonucleic acid - DNA

Deoxyribonucleic acid – DNA

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, Stem Cell Research: Trends and Perspectives on the Evolving International Landscape

EuroStemCell, Embryonic stem cell research: an ethical dilemma

Discovery, Cassini Watches Clouds Blow Over Titan’s Sea

About James Knauer

Artist - Scientist - Muscian
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12 Responses to First Life

  1. Mike Spindell says:

    James,

    Once again a brilliant piece that exponentially expands my own knowledge. You are a treasure that most of us have known for a while, but now are in a position to benefit from.

  2. po says:

    This was my first reading of a James’ offering, and I second Mike’s enthusiasm for it. looking forward to the next installment.

  3. Tony C. says:

    James: I have always had fun pondering a sci-fi concept of “effective immortality,” basically the idea that due to technology, people do not die of any disease or aging, the only thing that can kill people is major brain trauma due to accident, suicide or murder; otherwise we live indefinitely. What would that do to the world and society?

    An even worse effect is introduced by Star Trek and the Transporter. As presented over the course of that fiction (with implications studiously avoided by the authors), the transporter could obviously be used as a back up system for the person; their “patterns” stored in a “buffer” indefinitely and recreated in the event of death. i.e., beam up a dead Picard and materialize a living Picard as he was the moment he was scanned. Or if Picard was destroyed by flying into the Sun, just recreate him like they do with food replicators.

    With that technology, capable of cell-by-cell differentiation and comparison, a backup of one’s personality would be part of the morning shower: Beam up, filter out the dirt, replace pre-cancerous cells with their last healthy versions, and store the result before beaming down. (For the purpose of storyline Star Trek authors sometimes claim certain elements or compounds cannot be beamed, and must be physically transported, but obviously people and most everyday equipment (like Data) do not contain these exotics, or we wouldn’t beam ourselves about so much).

    The logical implication of the transporter beam is actual immortality. Tasha Yar did not have to die! (Well, except that Tasha was intended by Roddenberry to be a central “away team” character but as the writers evolved character dynamics Tasha got left out, and Denise Crosby felt like she wasn’t getting the part she had been promised and she didn’t want to spend years playing a background prop character like Uhura, and her agent couldn’t negotiate a contract that gave the Tasha character more prominence in the show, so Denise decided to leave … but I digress.)

    Combine the Transporter with instantaneous “sub space” communication and everybody on the ship can have a remote informational backup of their body about as often as desired. Get killed in an accident or battle, and presto, you are restored as if you never left on the mission in the first place. I wonder what the social implications are of that kind of immortality.

    Of course, I doubt the archaism of military hierarchical politics would survive, but what the heck, if we cannot be killed then let us boldly go, it might be fun, and what else are you doing for the next million years?

    • James Knauer says:

      Ah, Tony, we appear to dwell in the same Inner Trekdom. Tasha’s death was traumatic. It was for “no reason,” from the immature, disturbed mind. One never grieved a nameless dude in a red shirt when the ZZZZT! took him out of the plot. But we had never lost a principle, and to have it happen in such a cold, jarring manner. It was a sign Trek itself was changing. Skin of Evil remains potent. As for the background contract noise, well, having lived in L.A. all I can say is what else is new?

      Trek’s prophesy endures. The three things left on the list to check off are Warp Drive, Transporters, and Star Fleet Command, and the service it represents. Minds are presently at work on all three, it’s safe to say. I have really enjoyed the independent artists releasing their original stories and episode productions. I have an ongoing argument with a dear friend who insists we cannot call today’s 3d printers “replicators” because they do not integrate transporter technology. “Print me a sandwich and we’ll talk.”

      I think warp drive is the easier task. Transporters are going to be a Real Big Problem, something we’ll see why in part two of this series. Hint: you have to account for the whales and the water. Both the transporter and the holodeck raise All Kinds of Questions. They only scratched the surface. We’ll get to that in Part 3!

      The hardest task by far is the Star Fleet part. Your invaluable, messy, riveting and absolutely necessary debate with Po and others here tells us why. We’re not ready. Why no E.T.? How about, “grow the fuck up first?” As has been remarked elsewhere, Space, including the foggy bottoms of gravity wells, is not for the meek.

      Thank you for your comments.

  4. Mike Spindell says:

    James and Tony,

    There is a Sci-Fi writer named Richard K. Morgan who has played with the almost eternal life idea very entertainingly in a series of three books about a soldier of fortune in the future named Takeshi Kovacs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takeshi_Kovacs . In that future every human has a device implanted in the brain stem that has the ability to record their entire personality. Upon the death of their current body (called “sleeve”) this device is removed and implanted in a new, biologically constructed “sleeve” and life goes on unaffected. The effect of such a technology on society is what Morgan writes about and he does so both entertainingly, but with a sober point of view.

  5. James Knauer says:

    MIke, thank you! And especially for new books for the tablet, oh yeah!

  6. James Knauer says:

    Po, we’re just getting started!

  7. pete says:

    James

    What does the transporter do with the soul?
    I always liked the different ways of achieving longevity in Larry Nivens “A world out of Time”.

  8. James,
    Thanks so much for this. This is such a powerful piece I wanted to think about it before responding. After a couple of days, a coherent response is still in the process of gelling. When you write to make people think, and succeed, you have truly accomplished something. In the meantime, here is one of Alan Watts’ greatest talks on the ‘secret’ of life and living.

  9. Tony C. says:

    Chuck: I always figured the Holodeck was the easiest thing to implement, the closest to technology within, say, 75 years.

    The trick with the holodeck, I think, is that it can be just the illusion of reality; we don’t have to actually materialize the table with a gun on it, we just need to make a sensory match for the table and a sensory match for the gun. We just need to manipulate the senses of touch, sight, sound and smell.

    Engineering wise, this seemed far easier in a closed room than actually materializing a nail that could be pounded into actual wood anywhere in the universe. The nail in the holodeck is just the convincing illusion of a nail within the confines of the room, outside of which we can have any amount of computing power, projectors, and other such equipment as we like that maintains that illusion of the nail.

    Now If I am allowed to dress you in a suit and cover you head to toe with a hexagonal mesh of small LED-sized nerve stimulators, then holodeck level virtual reality may be realizable within a few decades. Manipulating the mind should be far, far easier than manipulating reality (with warp drives, transporters and replicators).

    I have also often thought that if virtual reality can be good enough, that might be why we see no aliens. Because (presuming they are anything like humans) at a certain point their society has unlimited power from a Star, they could be safe and secure in a Matrix-like pod and enjoy virtual reality, still with each other, but with a few changed rules of physics.

    Maybe that is the future of mankind, too. When we get over our adolescence, and natural resources (like gold or oil or platinum or whatever) are all rendered useless by technology, and we have unlimited energy from the sun owned by all, and a virtual presence can provide all the sensations of an actual presence with none of the danger, are we really sure we would want to go exploring in person?

    Perhaps the distances cannot be overcome. Perhaps life is a rarity that seldom arises twice in a galaxy. Perhaps the universe is utterly boring. And perhaps the way out of the universe is to hack into the brain, create an artificial reality, and spend our lives there with each other, in the body we choose and can change at will. It doesn’t mean we can’t create art, and fiction, and music, or fall in love or lust or have sex. All that might be changed by the environment, but it can still happen and (in my hypothesis) would seem like and feel like the real world.

  10. Tony C. says:

    Oops; sorry, I intended to address that last post to James….

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