Prebiotic Chemistry and the Hand of God

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“Many of the experiments designed to explain one or other step in the origin of life are either of tenuous relevance to any believable prebiotic setting or involve an experimental rig in which the hand of the researcher becomes for all intents and purposes the hand of God.”

Simon Conway MorrisLife’s Solution

If you could time travel, would you? Would you travel to the past or the future?

If asked this question, I bet many origin-of-life researchers would want to travel to the time in Earth’s history when life originated. Given the many scientifically impenetrable mysteries surrounding life’s genesis, I am certain many of the scientists working on these problems would love to see firsthand how life got its start.

It is true, origin-of-life researchers have some access to the origin-of-life process through the fossil and geochemical records of the oldest rock formations on Earth—yet this evidence only affords them a glimpse through the glass, dimly.

Because of these limitations, origin-of-life researchers have to carry out most of their work in laboratory settings, where they try to replicate the myriad steps they think contributed to the origin-of-life process. Pioneered by the late Stanley Miller in the early 1950s, this approach—dubbed prebiotic chemistry—has become a scientific subdiscipline in its own right.


Figure 1: Chemist Stanley Miller, circa 1980. Image credit: Wikipedia

Prebiotic Chemistry

In effect, the goals of prebiotic chemistry are threefold.

  • Proof of principle. The objective of these types of experiments is to determine—in principle—if a chemical or physical process that could potentially contribute to one or more steps in the origin-of-life pathway even exists.
  • Mechanism studies. Once processes have been identified that could contribute to the emergence of life, researchers study them in detail to get at the mechanisms undergirding these physicochemical transformations.
  • Geochemical relevance. Perhaps the most important goal of prebiotic studies is to establish the geochemical relevance of the physicochemical processes believed to have played a role in life’s start. In other words, how well do the chemical and physical processes identified and studied in the laboratory translate to early Earth’s conditions?

Without question, over the last 6 to 7 decades, origin-of-life researchers have been wildly successful with respect to the first two objectives. It is safe to say that origin-of-life investigators have demonstrated that—in principle—the chemical and physical processes needed to generate life through chemical evolutionary pathways exist.

But when it comes to the third objective, origin-of-life researchers have experienced frustration—and, arguably, failure.

Researcher Intervention and Prebiotic Chemistry

In an ideal world, humans would not intervene at all in any prebiotic study. But this ideal isn’t possible. Researchers involve themselves in the experimental design out of necessity, but also to ensure that the results of the study are reproducible and interpretable. If researchers don’t set up the experimental apparatus, adjust the starting conditions, add the appropriate reactants, and analyze the product, then by definition the experiment would never happen. Utilizing carefully controlled conditions and chemically pure reagents is necessary for reproducibility and to make sense of the results. In fact, this level of control is essential for proof-of-principle and mechanistic prebiotic studies—and perfectly acceptable.

However, when it comes to prebiotic chemistry’s third goal, geochemical relevance, the highly controlled conditions of the laboratory become a liability. Here researcher intervention becomes potentially unwarranted. It goes without saying that the conditions of early Earth were uncontrolled and chemically and physically complex. Chemically pristine and physically controlled conditions didn’t exist. And, of course, origin-of-life researchers weren’t present to oversee the processes and guide them to their desired end. Yet, it is rare for prebiotic simulation studies to fully take the actual conditions of early Earth into account in the experimental design. It is rarer for origin-of-life investigators to acknowledge this limitation.


Figure 2: Laboratory technician. Image credit: Shutterstock

This complication means that many prebiotic studies designed to simulate processes on early Earth seldom accomplish anything of the sort due to excessive researcher intervention. Yet, it isn’t always clear when examining an experimental design if researcher involvement is legitimate or unwarranted.

As I point out in my book Creating Life in the Lab (Baker, 2011), one main reason for the lack of progress relates to the researcher’s role in the experimental design—a role not often recognized when experimental results are reported. Origin-of-life investigator Clemens Richert from the University of Stuttgart in Germany now acknowledges this very concern in a recent comment piece published by Nature Communications.1

As Richert points out, the role of researcher intervention and a clear assessment of geochemical relevance is rarely acknowledged or properly explored in prebiotic simulation studies. To remedy this problem, Richert calls for origin-of-life investigators to do three things when they report the results of prebiotic studies.

  • State explicitly the number of instances in which researchers engaged in manual intervention.
  • Describe precisely the prebiotic scenario a particular prebiotic simulation study seeks to model.
  • Reduce the number of steps involving manual intervention in whatever way possible.

Still, as Richert points out, it is not possible to provide a quantitative measure (a score) of geochemical relevance. And, hence, there will always be legitimate disagreement about the geochemical relevance of any prebiotic experiment.

Yet, Richert’s commentary represents an important first step toward encouraging more realistic prebiotic simulation studies and a more cautious approach to interpreting the results of these studies. Hopefully, it will also lead to a more circumspect assessment on the importance of these types of studies for accounting for the various steps in the origin-of-life process.

Researcher Intervention and the Hand of God

One concern not addressed by Richert in his commentary piece is the fastidiousness of many of the physicochemical transformations origin-of-life researchers deem central to chemical evolution. As I discuss in Creating Life in the Lab, mechanistic studies indicate that these processes are often dependent upon exacting conditions in the laboratory. To put it another way, these processes only take place—even under the most ideal laboratory conditions—because of human intervention. As a corollary, these processes would be unproductive on early Earth. They often require chemically pristine conditions, unrealistically high concentrations of reactants, carefully controlled order of additions, carefully regulated temperature, pH, salinity levels, etc.

As Richert states, “It’s not easy to see what replaced the flasks, pipettes, and stir bars of a chemistry lab during prebiotic evolution, let alone the hands of the chemist who performed the manipulations. (And yes, most of us are not comfortable with the idea of divine intervention.)”2

Sadly, since I made the point about researcher intervention nearly a decade ago, it has often been ignored, dismissed, and even ridiculed by many in the scientific community—simply because I have the temerity to think that a Creator brought life into existence.

Even though Richert and his many colleagues in the origin-of-life research community do whatever they can to eschew a Creator’s role in the origin-of-life, could it be that abiogenesis (life from nonlife) required the hand of God—divine intervention?

I would argue that this conclusion follows from nearly seven decades of work in prebiotic chemistry and the consistent demonstration of the central role that origin-of-life researchers play in the success of prebiotic simulation studies. It is becoming increasingly evident for whoever will “see” that the hand of the researcher serves as the analog for the hand of God.


  1. Clemens Richert, “Prebiotic Chemistry and Human Intervention,” Nature Communications 9 (December 12, 2018): 5177, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07219-5.
  2. Richert, “Prebiotic Chemistry.

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Molecular Scale Robotics Build Case for Design



Sometimes bigger is better, and other times, not so much—particularly for scientists working in the field of nanotechnology.

Scientists and engineers working in this area are obsessed with miniaturization. And because of this obsession, they have developed techniques to manipulate matter at the molecular scale. Thanks to these advances, they can now produce novel materials (that could never be produced with macro-scale methods) with a host of applications. They also use these techniques to fabricate molecular-level devices—nanometer-sized machines—made up of complex arrangements of atoms and molecules. They hope that these machines will perform sophisticated tasks, giving researchers full control of the molecular domain.

Recently, scientists from the University of Manchester in the UK achieved a milestone in nanotechnology when they designed the first-ever molecular robot that can be deployed to build molecules in the same way that robotic arms on assembly lines manufacture automobiles.1 These molecular robots can be used to improve the efficiency of chemical reactions and make it possible for organic chemists to design synthetic routes that, up to this point, were inconceivable.

Undoubtedly, this advance will pave the way for more cost-effective, greener chemical reactions at the bench and plant scales. It will also grant organic chemists greater control over chemical reactions, paving the way for the synthesis of new types of compounds including drugs and other pharmaceutical agents.

As exciting as these prospects are, perhaps the greater significance of this research lies in the intriguing theological implications. For example, comparison of the molecular robots to the biomolecular machines in the cell—machines that carry out similar assembly-line operations—highlights the elegant designs of biochemical systems, evincing a Creator’s handiwork. This research is theologically provocative in another way. It demonstrates human exceptionalism and, by doing so, supports the biblical claim that human beings are made in the image of God.

Molecular Robotics

University of Manchester chemists built molecular robots that consist of about 150 atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen. Though these robots consist of a relatively small number of atoms, the arrangement of these atoms makes the molecular robots structurally complex.

The robots’ architecture is organized around a molecular-scale platform. Located in the middle of the platform is a molecular arm that extends upward and then bends at a 90-degree angle. This molecular prosthesis binds molecules at the end of the arm and then can be made to swivel between the two ends of the platform as researchers add different chemicals to the reaction. The swiveling action brings the bound molecule in juxtaposition to the chemical groups at the tip ends of the platform. When reactants are added to the solution, these compounds will react with the bound molecule differently depending on the placement of the arm, whether it is oriented toward one end of the platform or the other. In this way, the bound molecule—call it A—can react through two cycles of arm placement to form one of four possible compounds—B, C, D, and E. In this scheme, unwanted side reactions are kept to a minimum, because the bound molecule is precisely positioned next to either of the two ends of the molecular platform. This specificity improves the reaction efficiency, while at the same time making it possible for chemists to generate compounds that would be impossible to synthesize without the specificity granted by the molecular robots.

Molecular Robots Make the Case for Design

Many researchers working in nanotechnology did not think that the University of Manchester scientists—or any scientists, for that matter—could design and build a molecular robot that could carry out high precision molecular assembly. In the abstract of their paper, the Manchester team writes, “It has been convincingly argued that molecular machines that manipulate individual atoms, or highly reactive clusters of atoms, with Ångstrom precision are unlikely to be realized.”2

Yet, the researchers were motivated to try to achieve this goal because molecular machines with this capacity exist inside the cell. They continue, “However, biological molecular machines routinely position rather less reactive substrates in order to direct chemical reaction sequences.”3 To put it another way, the Manchester chemists derived insight and inspiration from the biomolecular machines inside the cell to design and build their molecular robot.

As I have written about before, the use of designs in biochemistry to inspire advances in nanotechnology make possible a new design argument, one I call the converse watchmaker argument. Namely, if biological designs are the work of a Creator, these systems should be so well-designed that they can serve as engineering models and otherwise inspire the development of new technologies.

Comparison of the molecular robots designed by the University of Manchester team with a typical biomolecular machine found in the cell illustrates this point. The newly synthesized molecular robot consists of around 150 atoms, yet it took an enormous amount of ingenuity and effort to design and make. Still, this molecular machine is far less efficient than the biomolecular machines found in the cell. The cell’s biomolecular machines consist of thousands of atoms and are much more elegant and sophisticated than the man-made molecular robots. Considering these differences, is it reasonable to think that the biomolecular machines in the cell resulted from unguided, undirected, contingent processes when they are so much more advanced than the molecular robots built by scientists—some of them among the best chemists in the world?

The only reasonable explanation is that the biomolecular machines in the cell stem from the work of a mind—a divine mind with unlimited creative capacity.

Molecular Robots Make the Case for Human Exceptionalism

Though unimpressive when compared to the elegant biomolecular machines in the cell, molecular robots still stand as a noteworthy scientific accomplishment—one might even say they represent science at its very best. And this accomplishment stresses the fact that human beings are the only species that has ever existed that can create technologies as advanced as the molecular robots invented by the University of Manchester chemists. Our capacity to investigate and understand nature through science and then turn that insight into technologies is unique to human beings. No other creature that exists today or that has ever existed, possesses this capability.

Thomas Suddendorf puts it this way:

“We reflect on and argue about our present situation, our history, and our destiny. We envision wonderful harmonious worlds as easily as we do dreadful tyrannies. Our powers are used for good as they are for bad, and we incessantly debate which is which. Our minds have spawned civilizations and technologies that have changed the face of the Earth, while our closest living animal relatives sit unobtrusively in their remaining forests. There appears to be a tremendous gap between human and animal minds.”4

Anthropologists believe that symbolism accounts for the gap between humans and the great apes. As human beings, we effortlessly represent the world with discrete symbols. We denote abstract concepts with symbols. And our ability to represent the world symbolically has interesting consequences when coupled with our abilities to combine and recombine those symbols in a nearly infinite number of ways to create alternate possibilities.

Our capacity for symbolism manifests in the form of language, art, music, and even body ornamentation. And we desire to communicate the scenarios we construct in our minds with other human beings. In a sense, symbolism and our open-ended capacity to generate alternative hypotheses are scientific descriptors of the image of God.

There also appears to be a gap between human minds and the minds of the hominins, such as Neanderthals, who preceded us in the fossil record. It is true: claims abound about Neanderthals possessing the capacity for symbolism. Yet, as I discuss in Who Was Adamthose claims do not withstand scientific scrutiny. Recently, paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall and linguist Noam Chomsky (along with other collaborators) argued that Neanderthals could not have possessed language and, hence, symbolism, because their crude “technology” remained stagnant for the duration of their time on Earth. Neanderthals—who first appear in the fossil record around 250,000 to 200,000 years ago and disappear around 40,000 years ago—existed on Earth longer than modern humans have. Yet, our technology has progressed exponentially, while Neanderthal technology remained largely static. According to Tattersall, Chomsky, and their coauthors:

“Our species was born in a technologically archaic context, and significantly, the tempo of change only began picking up after the point at which symbolic objects appeared. Evidently, a new potential for symbolic thought was born with our anatomically distinctive species, but it was only expressed after a necessary cultural stimulus had exerted itself. This stimulus was most plausibly the appearance of language. . . . Then, within a remarkably short space of time, art was invented, cities were born, and people had reached the moon.”5

In effect, these researchers echo Suddendorf’s point. The gap between human beings and the great apes and hominins becomes most apparent when we consider the remarkable technological advances we have made during our tenure as a species. And this mind-boggling growth in technology points to our exceptionalism as a species, affirming the biblical view that, as human beings, we uniquely bear God’s image.

Resources to Dig Deeper


  1. Salma Kassem et al., “Stereodivergent Synthesis with a Programmable Molecular Machine,” Nature 549 (September 21, 2017): 374–8, doi:10.1038/nature23677.
  2. Kassem et al., “Stereodivergent Synthesis,” 374.
  3. Kassem et al., “Stereodivergent Synthesis,” 374.
  4. Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 2.
  5. Johan J. Bolhuis et al., “How Could Language Have Evolved?” PLoS Biology 12 (August 26, 2014): e1001934, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001934.
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Fatty Acids Are Beautiful



Who says that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

George Herbert, “Jordan (I)”

I doubt the typical person would ever think fatty acids are a thing of beauty. In fact, most people try to do everything they can to avoid them—at least in their diets. But, as a biochemist who specializes in lipids (a class of biomolecules that includes fatty acids) and cell membranes, I am fascinated by these molecules—and by the biochemical and cellular structures they form.

I know, I know—I’m a science geek. But for me, the chemical structures and the physicochemical properties of lipids are as beautiful as an evening sunset. As an expert, I thought I knew most of what there is to know about fatty acids, so I was surprised to learn that researchers from Germany recently uncovered an elegant mathematical relationship that explains the structural makeup of fatty acids.From my vantage point, this newly revealed mathematical structure boggles my mind, providing new evidence for a Creator’s role in bringing life into existence.

Fatty Acids

To first approximation, fatty acids are relatively simple compounds, consisting of a carboxylic acid head group and a long-chain hydrocarbon tail.


Structure of two typical fatty acids
Image credit: Edgar181/Wikimedia Commons

Despite their structural simplicity, a bewildering number of fatty acid species exist. For example, the hydrocarbon chain of fatty acids can vary in length from 1 carbon atom to over 30. One or more double bonds can occur at varying positions along the chain, and the double bonds can be either cis or trans in geometry. The hydrocarbon tails can be branched and can be modified by carbonyl groups and by hydroxyl substituents at varying points along the chain. As the hydrocarbon chains become longer, the number of possible structural variants increases dramatically.

How Many Fatty Acids Exist in Nature?

This question takes on an urgency today because advances in analytical techniques now make it possible for researchers to identify and quantify the vast number of lipid species found in biological systems, birthing the discipline of lipidomics. Investigators are interested in understanding how lipid compositions vary spatially and temporally in biological systems and how these compositions change in response to altered physiological conditions and pathologies.

To process and make sense of the vast amount of data generated in lipidomics studies, biochemists need to have some understanding of the number of lipid species that are theoretically possible. Recently, researchers from Friedrich Schiller University in Germany took on this challenge—at least, in part—by attempting to calculate the number of chemical species that exist for fatty acids varying in size from 1 to 30 atoms.

Fatty Acids and Fibonacci Numbers

To accomplish this objective, the German researchers developed mathematical equations that relate the number of carbon atoms in fatty acids to the number of structural variants (isomers). They discovered that this relationship conforms to the Fibonacci series, with the number of possible fatty acid species increasing by a factor of 1.618—the golden mean—for each carbon atom added to the fatty acid. Though not immediately evident when first examining the wide array of fatty acids found in nature, deeper analysis reveals that a beautiful yet simple mathematical structure underlies the seemingly incomprehensible structural diversity of these biomolecules.

This discovery indicates it is unlikely that the fatty acid compositions found in nature reflect the haphazard outcome of an undirected, historically contingent evolutionary history, as many biochemists are prone to think. Instead, the fatty acids found throughout the biological realm appear to be fundamentally dictated by the tenets of nature. It is provocative to me that the fatty acid diversity produced by the laws of nature is precisely the isomers needed to for life to be possible—a fitness to purpose, if you will.

Understanding this mathematical relationship and knowing the theoretical number of fatty acid species will certainly aid biochemists working in lipidomics. But for me, the real significance of these results lies in the philosophical and theological arenas.

The Mathematical Beauty of Fatty Acids

The golden mean occurs throughout nature, describing the spiral patterns found in snail shells and the flowers and leaves of plants, as examples, highlighting the pervasiveness of mathematical structures and patterns that describe many aspects of the world in which we live.

But there is more. As it turns out, we perceive the golden mean to be a thing of beauty. In fact, architects and artists often make use of the golden mean in their work because of its deeply aesthetic qualities.

Everywhere we look in nature—whether the spiral arms of galaxies, the shell of a snail, or the petals of a flower—we see a grandeur so great that we are often moved to our very core. This grandeur is not confined to the elements of nature we perceive with our senses; it also exists in the underlying mathematical structure of nature, such the widespread occurrence of the Fibonacci sequence and the golden mean. And it is remarkable that this beautiful mathematical structure even extends to the relationship between the number of carbon atoms in a fatty acid and the number of isomers.

As a Christian, nature’s beauty—including the elegance exemplified by the mathematically dictated composition of fatty acids—prompts me to worship the Creator. But this beauty also points to the reality of God’s existence and supports the biblical view of humanity. If God created the universe, then it is reasonable to expect it to be a beautiful universe. Yet, if the universe came into existence through mechanism alone, there is no reason to think it would display beauty. In other words, the beauty in the world around us signifies the Divine.

Furthermore, if the universe originated through uncaused physical mechanisms, there is no reason to think that humans would possess an aesthetic sense. But if human beings are made in God’s image, as Scripture teaches, we should be able to discern and appreciate the universe’s beauty, made by our Creator to reveal his glory and majesty.

Resources to Dig Deeper


  1. Stefan Schuster, Maximilian Fichtner, and Severin Sasso, “Use of Fibonacci Numbers in Lipidomics—Enumerating Various Classes of Fatty Acids,” Scientific Reports 7 (January 2017): 39821, doi:10.1038/srep39821.
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