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A View from the Altar / Ruminating on digestion
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Ruminating on digestion

I saw a junk science TeeVee show that explained how the earth was made.  As if they knew.  During the discussion of first life, I realized that there’s a big gap in evolutionary theory I hadn’t seen before.  No doubt somebody has written about this before, but it’s a first for me: Digestion.  It requires a revolution in the fundamental operating principle of the first living things even at the proto-cell level.

Evolutionary theory says the first life was scarcely “alive” at all.  It was a self-replicating protein-like thing.  The only thing lifelike about this bit of protein was that it had the effect of mechanically sorting nearby amino acids in the primordial goo into duplicates of itself.  The requirements for this trick are:  Amino acids must “fall together” into the first protein-like thing.  Then the protein-like thing must begin bumping into other amino acids in the correct sequence, flip them around to the right position for the physical chemistry to click, make them fuse together, then prompt the new assembly to release itself intact from the parent protein.  After these “simple” steps, presto! we’ve got one new copy of the protein-like thing.  I should note before proceeding that experiments have been devised to simulate this process where the chemistry was totally rigged to favor the desired outcome, but it still didn’t work.  That experiment reminds me of a child who shines his flashlight on a chandelier and is puzzled when the chandelier doesn’t turn on.

But never mind the experimental failures.  Let’s assume the protein-like thing somehow formed, and it’s bumping into the right amino acids here and there, flipping, sticking, calving new chunks, merrily copying itself.  When the supply of amino acids in the local mud hole is consumed, the whole process stops right there, doesn’t it?  (Nod your head yes.)

So somewhere down the line, a major leap has to occur when the protein-like thing no longer depends on passively bumping into the right amino acids.  It has to find stuff in its environment and actively convert that into its “food”.  That means it must either synthesize amino acids from simpler chemicals present in its environment, or it must extract amino acids from something else that has them.

What we’re describing here is actually a process of proto-digestion by which materials in the environment are chemically converted into something the organism can use.  That’s a fundamentally different process from a self-replicating protein-like thing which merely gets building blocks to passively “fall” together.  In fact, it alters the most basic nature of what the organism is — from something passive into something active.  The self-replicating protein is an accident of chemistry that gets preserved only so long as more accidents of the same kind keep happening to it.  But once it can digest stuff, it is more like a mechanism that actively sifts its environment, deconstructs pieces of it, extract what it needs, and expels the residues.

Here’s the key:  The amino acid supplies for the protein will eventually run out, and after that, the protein is either a passive collector of good luck or an active creature that finds its own resources.  It can either synthesize new amino acids or it can’t.  There is no in between here.  And it occurs to me that this gap is almost as big as the gap between non-life and life. 

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

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