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Hydrothermal Origin of Life?
© 1999 J. Sarfati & Creation Ministries International. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
This article first appeared in Vol. 13, No. 2 of the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal,
a peer-reviewed journal published by Creation Ministries International.
Some Japanese researchers have claimed to
prove that life could have arisen in a submarine hydrothermal vent.
However, the most complex molecule their ‘simulation’ produced was
hexaglycine, in the microscopic yield of 0.001%. Compared to the complexity
of even the simplest living cell, hexaglycine is extremely simple. High
temperatures would degrade any complex molecules over the alleged geological
he simplest possible cell, according to recent theoretical analysis,
would need a bare minimum of 256 genes coding for the required enzymes,
which are long polypeptides. And it is doubtful whether such a hypothetical
organism could survive, because such an organism could barely repair DNA
damage, could no longer fine-tune the ability of its remaining genes, would
lack the ability to digest complex compounds, and would need a comprehensive
supply of organic nutrients in its environment.
One major difficulty is linking up the building blocks at all, let alone
in the right sequence. This is because thermodynamic considerations show
that long molecules like proteins and nucleic acids tend to break up into
their component monomers (amino acids and nucleotides respectively). Any undirected energy input is
more likely to be destructive rather than constructive, like ‘a bull in
a china shop’, and to increase the variety of undesirable side
Some researchers have proposed that life began in submarine hydrothermal
vents, where superheated subterranean water pours into the sea. The idea is
that the heat can help synthesize polymers, which would then be quenched in
the surrounding sea water this would prevent the same
energy from destroying the products soon after they were formed.
Five researchers in Nagaoka, Japan, claimed to have simulated such
conditions in a flow reactor. They circulated 500 ml of a strong
solution of glycine (0.1 M) through several chambers at a high pressure of
24.0 MPa. The first chamber was heated mainly to 200250 °
C; from there, the liquid was injected at the rate of 812 ml/min into
a cooling chamber kept at 0 °
C. Then the liquid was depressurized before samples were extracted at
various intervals. The whole cycle was completed in 11.3 hours. In
some of the runs, 0.01 M CuCl2 was added to the 0.1 M glycine
solution, which was also acidified to pH 2.5 by HCl at room temperature.
The most spectacular results occurred in the runs with the extra
CuCl2 and HCl. The Cu2+ ions catalyzed the formation
of tetraglycine (yield 0.1%). Even some hexaglycine formed (yield 0.001%).
But the product with the highest yield was the cyclic dimer,
diketopiperazine, which peaked at about 1% yield, then dropped. The reader
is not informed as to how much effort was invested in optimizing the
conditions to maximize the amount of larger polyglycines.
The team leader, Koichiro Matsuno, was quoted as follows:
‘For 10 years, underwater hydrothermal
vents have been thought to be the place where life
began and we were able to prove it.’ 
But is this justified by the experimental results? No! As shown by the
following reasons, Matsuno’s claim is based on evolutionary faith,
which results in over-optimistic interpretation of the data.
- The concentration of glycine of 0.1 M was far higher than could be
expected in a real primordial soup. In reality, prebiotic simulations of
glycine production produce far lower yields. Also, any glycine produced
would be subject to oxidative degradation in an oxygenic atmosphere. Or
else, if there was a primitive oxygen-free atmosphere, the lack of an ozone layer would result in
destruction by ultraviolet radiation. Also, adsorption by clays,
precipitation or complexation by metal ions, or reactions with other organic
molecules would reduce the concentration still further. A more realistic
concentration would be 107 M.
- While the hydrothermal conditions might be right for this experiment,
overall, they would be harmful in the long term to other vital components of
life. For example, the famous pioneer of evolutionary origin-of-life
experiments, Stanley Miller, points out that polymers are ‘too unstable to exist in a hot prebiotic
environment’. Miller has also pointed out that the RNA
bases are destroyed very quickly in water at 100 °
C adenine and guanine have half lives of about a year,
uracil about 12 years, and cytosine only 19 days. Intense heating also readily destroys many of
the complex amino acids such as serine and threonine. Another problem is that the exclusive
‘left-handedness’ required for life is destroyed by heating, i.e.
the amino acids are racemized. But this was not put to the test because the
Japanese team used the simplest amino acid, glycine, which is the only
achiral amino acid used in living systems. It seems incomprehensible that
after designing this experiment with such care other amino acids would not
have been tested. The fact that they are all known to undergo various
non-peptide bond reactions has surely not escaped the researchers’
- The longest polymer (or rather, oligomer) formed was hexaglycine.
Most enzymes, however, have far more than six amino acid
residues usually hundreds. And even the hexaglycine
produced was found only in minuscule amounts.
- This experiment gave a simple homo-oligomer, i.e. all monomers are
the same. But life requires many polymers in precise sequences of 20
different types of amino acids. Thus Matsuno’s experiments
offer not the slightest explanation for the complex, high-information
polymers of living organisms.
As the non-creationist information theorist Hubert Yockey observed over
20 years earlier (and he has not revised his opinion since):
‘Research on the origin of
life seems to be unique in that the conclusion has already been
. What remains to be done is to find the
scenarios which describe the detailed mechanisms and processes by which this
One must conclude that, contrary to the established and current wisdom a
scenario describing the genesis of life on earth by chance and natural
causes which can be accepted on the basis of fact and not faith has not yet
been written.’ 
 Wells, W., Taking life to bits, New
Scientist 155(2095):3033, 1997. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Sarfati, J.D., Origin of life: the
polymerization problem, CEN Tech. J.
12(3):281284, 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Imai, E., Honda, H., Hatori, K., Brack, A. and
Matsuno, K., Elongation of oligopeptides in a simulated submarine
hydrothermal system, Science 283(5403):831833, 1999. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Matsuno, K.; cited by Elaine Lies, Reuters Nagaoka,
Japan, Feb. 5, 1999. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 The ‘strongest evidence’ for an anoxic
ancient earth atmosphere is that we know chemical evolution took place, and
this would have been impossible with oxygen present! The following
‘reason’ in this circular way: Walker, J.C.G., Evolution of the
Atmosphere, Macmillan, NY, p. 224, 1977; Fox, S. and Dose, K,
Molecular Evolution and the Origin of Life, W.H. Freeman & Co.,
San Francisco, pp. 4545, 1972; cited in: Thaxton et al.,
Ref. 6. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Thaxton, C.B., Bradley, W.L. and Olsen, R.L., The
Mystery of Life’s Origin, Philosophical Library Inc., New York, ch.
4, 1984. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Miller, S.L. and Lazcano, A., The origin of
life did it occur at high temperatures? J. Mol.
Evol. 41:689692, 1995. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Levy, M and Miller, S.L., The stability of the RNA
bases: Implications for the origin of life, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
95(14):793338, 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Gish, D.T., Origin
of life: The Fox thermal model of the origin of life, Impact
33, Institute for Creation Research, March 1976. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Sarfati, J.D., Origin of life: the
chirality problem, CEN Tech. J.
12(3):263266, 1998. [RETURN TO TEXT]
 Yockey, H.P., A calculation of the probability of
spontaneous biogenesis by information theory, J. Theor. Biol.
67:377398, 1977; quotes from pp. 379, 396. [RETURN TO TEXT]
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