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Origin of complex cells: Can energy create information?

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nick-portrait Origin of life researcher Nick Lane, author of The Vital Question asks at The Scientist:

Did endosymbiosis-and the innovations in membrane bioenergetics it engendered-make it possible for eukaryotic life to evolve?

There’s a black hole at the heart of biology. Why is it that complex eukaryotic cells share so many fundamental traits, from the nucleus to meiotic sex, which are essentially absent from prokaryotes? Most people would be hard pressed to distinguish a human cell from those of a mushroom, a plant, or a zoospore. Yet those cells diverged a billion years ago, and have utterly different ways of life.

He argues at The Scientist for membrane bioenergetics:

Genes point to an answer, but don’t explain the whole story. All eukaryotes share a common ancestor that arose just once in four billion years of evolution. This ancestor was recognizably a modern eukaryotic cell, with a long list of characteristics inherited by its varied descendants, including straight chromosomes, introns and exons, nuclear pore complexes, dynamic cytoskeleton, endomembranes, sex, and mitochondria.

book cover In my latest book, The Vital Question, I argue that the answer lies in energy—specifically, the totally unanticipated mechanism of membrane bioenergetics. Essentially all cells rely on electrochemical ion gradients (usually proton gradients) across membranes to drive the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Autotrophs rely on membrane bioenergetics to drive carbon fixation, too. In fact, all carbon and energy metabolism depends on proton gradients across membranes.


In The Vital Question, I posit that the basal traits of eukaryotes were forged in the crucible of endosymbiosis between prokaryotes, which drove the evolution of sex, the nucleus, the germline-soma distinction, aging, and death. These ideas might be wrong, but they are testable, and could have considerable explanatory power. I think we’ll only understand why life is the way it is when we bring energy into the equation.

Lane seems to think that energy can create or substitute for huge amounts of information. This seems wrong but it is apparently acceptable to The Scientist. Thoughts?

See also: Other reasons why origin of life in general is such a baffling problem.

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15 Replies to “Origin of complex cells: Can energy create information?

  1. 1
    REW says:

    He’s not saying energy creates information. He’s saying that the huge amount of energy that was made available to eukaryotic cells made it possible for those cells to acquire new functions which they would not have been able to do otherwise

  2. 2
    Virgil Cain says:

    An evolutionary origin of eukaryotes is the aether of biology. Endosymbiosis boils down to nothing more than “those organelles (mitochondria and chloroplasts) look like stripped down bacteria”. That is all it has and there is much more to eukaryotes than the addition of those organelles.

    As for acquiring new functions, unless there was a new function store or the cells were engineers, that would only come about if a degraded original function somehow found something else to do.

  3. 3
    News says:

    REW at 1: If he is saying that “the huge amount of energy that was made available to eukaryotic cells made it possible for those cells to acquire new functions which they would not have been able to do otherwise,” he is saying that huge amounts of energy create new information. It would be interesting to see that demonstrated. As he says, it is testable.

    It is pleasant to be skeptical of something that is at least testable. It’s science in a sense that the multiverse is not.

  4. 4
    cantor says:

    “All eukaryotes share a common ancestor that arose just once in four billion years of evolution.”

    Is that a “fact” ?

    If so, how do we know for sure it was “just once” and not, say, “just twice”?


  5. 5
    Zachriel says:

    cantor: If so, how do we know for sure it was “just once” and not, say, “just twice”?

    Because of the nested hierarchy. More than one strain of eukaryote may have evolved, but only one strain is the ancestor of all extant eukaryotes.

  6. 6
    Virgil Cain says:

    Because of the nested hierarchy.

    Evolution doesn’t produce nested hierarchies. (Darwin 1859; Mayr 1964; Denton 1986; Knox 1998; Wagner 2014)

    More than one strain of eukaryote may have evolved, but only one strain is the ancestor of all extant eukaryotes.

    Except eukaryotes didn’t evolve.

  7. 7
    bornagain77 says:

    It should be noted that just pouring raw energy into a system (as with the sun pouring energy onto the earth) actually increases the disorder of the system. i.e. less ‘information’.

    Thermodynamic Arguments for Creation – Thomas Kindell (46:39 minute mark) – video

    As Dr. Kindell highlighted in the preceding video, a molecular machine must be in place to turn that destructive raw energy into useful ‘discrete’ energy. i.e. particularly ATP.
    Yet, transforming raw destructive energy from the sun into useful ‘discrete’ energy is certainly no small engineering feat.

    Miniature Molecular Power Plant: ATP Synthase – January 2013 – video

    Your Motor/Generators Are 100% Efficient – October 2011
    Excerpt: ATP synthase astounds again. The molecular machine that generates almost all the ATP (molecular “energy pellets”) for all life was examined by Japanese scientists for its thermodynamic efficiency. By applying and measuring load on the top part that synthesizes ATP, they were able to determine that one cannot do better at getting work out of a motor,,,

    ATP: The Perfect Energy Currency for the Cell – Jerry Bergman, Ph.D.
    Excerpt: In manufacturing terms, the ATP (Synthase) molecule is a machine with a level of organization on the order of a research microscope or a standard television (Darnell, Lodish, and Baltimore, 1996).

    Scientists unlock some key secrets of photosynthesis – July 2, 2012
    Excerpt: “The photosynthetic system of plants is nature’s most elaborate nanoscale biological machine,” said Lakshmi. “It converts light energy at unrivaled efficiency of more than 95 percent compared to 10 to 15 percent in the current man-made solar technologies.,, “Photosystem II is the engine of life,” Lakshmi said. “It performs one of the most energetically demanding reactions known to mankind, splitting water, with remarkable ease and efficiency.”,,, “Water is a very stable molecule and it takes four photons of light to split water,” she said. “This is a challenge for chemists and physicists around the world (to imitate) as the four-photon reaction has very stringent requirements.”

    The Puzzle of Perfection, Thirty Years On – July 31, 2015
    Excerpt: The authors of the first paper, published in PNAS, seem hesitant to use the word “perfect” in their description of ATP synthase, the machine that generates energy currency for most cellular processes in all living things (see our animation of this amazing machine here). They use “near-perfect” in the title and throughout the paper:
    “ATP synthase produces most of the ATP in respiratory and photosynthetic cells. It is a rotary motor enzyme and its catalytic portion F1-ATPase hydrolyzes ATP to drive rotation of the central ? subunit. Efficiency of chemomechanical energy conversion by this motor is always near-perfect under different ATP hydrolysis energy (?GATP) conditions.”
    Any deviation from perfection, however, could be due to experimental error. In their graph, the error bars transverse the slope for 100 percent efficiency (that is, for conversion of chemical energy to mechanical work). It may well be as close to perfect as is physically possible. What’s even more striking is that this “near-perfect” level of efficiency is maintained throughout a “broad range” of operation conditions.

    The 10 Step Glycolysis Pathway In ATP Production: An Overview – video

    At the 14:00 minute mark of the following video, Chris Ashcraft, PhD – molecular biology, gives us an overview of the Citric Acid Cycle, which is, after the 10 step Glycolysis Pathway, also involved in ATP production:

    Evolution vs ATP Synthase – Chris Ashcraft – video – citric acid cycle at 14:00 minute mark

    The Citric Acid Cycle: An Overview – video

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    Moreover, as if the preceding were not bad enough for Darwinists, energy is now found to reduce to non-local’, beyond space and time, quantum information.
    First, it is important to learn that ‘non-local’, beyond space and time, quantum entanglement (A. Aspect, A. Zeilinger, etc..) can be used as a ‘quantum information channel’,,,

    Quantum Entanglement and Information
    Quantum entanglement is a physical resource, like energy, associated with the peculiar nonclassical correlations that are possible between separated quantum systems. Entanglement can be measured, transformed, and purified. A pair of quantum systems in an entangled state can be used as a quantum information channel to perform computational and cryptographic tasks that are impossible for classical systems. The general study of the information-processing capabilities of quantum systems is the subject of quantum information theory.

    And by using this ‘non-local’, beyond space and time, ‘quantum information channel’ of entanglement, such as they use in quantum computation, physicists have reduced material, via quantum teleportation, to quantum information. (of note: energy is completely reduced to quantum information, whereas matter is semi-completely reduced, with the caveat being that matter can be reduced to energy via e=mc2).

    Atom takes a quantum leap – 2009
    Excerpt: Ytterbium ions have been ‘teleported’ over a distance of a metre.,,,
    “What you’re moving is information, not the actual atoms,” says Chris Monroe, from the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland in College Park and an author of the paper. But as two particles of the same type differ only in their quantum states, the transfer of quantum information is equivalent to moving the first particle to the location of the second.

    How Teleportation Will Work –
    Excerpt: In 1993, the idea of teleportation moved out of the realm of science fiction and into the world of theoretical possibility. It was then that physicist Charles Bennett and a team of researchers at IBM confirmed that quantum teleportation was possible, but only if the original object being teleported was destroyed. — As predicted, the original photon no longer existed once the replica was made.

    And this non-local, beyond space and time, quantum entanglement, by which energy itself was reduced to quantum information, is now found in molecular biology on a massive scale. i.e. In every protein and DNA molecule:

    Classical and Quantum Information in DNA – Elisabeth Rieper – video (Longitudinal Quantum Information along the entire length of DNA discussed at the 19:30 minute mark; at 24:00 minute mark Dr Rieper remarks that practically the whole DNA molecule can be viewed as quantum information with classical information embedded within it)

    Classical and Quantum Information Channels in Protein Chain – Dj. Koruga, A. Tomi?, Z. Ratkaj, L. Matija – 2006
    Abstract: Investigation of the properties of peptide plane in protein chain from both classical and quantum approach is presented. We calculated interatomic force constants for peptide plane and hydrogen bonds between peptide planes in protein chain. On the basis of force constants, displacements of each atom in peptide plane, and time of action we found that the value of the peptide plane action is close to the Planck constant. This indicates that peptide plane from the energy viewpoint possesses synergetic classical/quantum properties. Consideration of peptide planes in protein chain from information viewpoint also shows that protein chain possesses classical and quantum properties. So, it appears that protein chain behaves as a triple dual system: (1) structural – amino acids and peptide planes, (2) energy – classical and quantum state, and (3) information – classical and quantum coding. Based on experimental facts of protein chain, we proposed from the structure-energy-information viewpoint its synergetic code system.

    That ‘non-local’ quantum entanglement, which conclusively demonstrates that ‘information’ in its ‘quantum form’ is completely transcendent of any time and space constraints (Bell, Aspect, Leggett, Zeilinger, etc..), ,,

    Looking beyond space and time to cope with quantum theory – 29 October 2012
    Excerpt: “Our result gives weight to the idea that quantum correlations somehow arise from outside spacetime, in the sense that no story in space and time can describe them,”

    that non-local quantum information should be found in molecular biology on such a massive scale, in every DNA and protein molecule, is a direct empirical falsification of Darwinian claims, for how can the ‘non-local’ quantum entanglement ‘effect’ in biology possibly be explained by a material (matter/energy) cause when the quantum entanglement effect falsified material particles as its own causation in the first place? Appealing to the probability of various ‘random’ configurations of material particles, as Darwinism does, simply will not help since a timeless/spaceless cause must be supplied which is beyond the capacity of the material particles themselves to supply!
    In other words, to give a coherent explanation for an effect that is shown to be completely independent of any time and space constraints one is forced to appeal to a cause that is itself not limited to time and space! i.e. Put more simply, you cannot explain a effect by a cause that has been falsified by the very same effect you are seeking to explain!
    Improbability arguments of various ‘special’ configurations of material particles, which have been a staple of the arguments against neo-Darwinism, simply do not apply since the cause is not even within the material particles in the first place!

  9. 9
    Dionisio says:

    At the end of the day “The Vital Question” remains unanswered. What else is new?
    The referenced book seems to fail two fundamental requirements:
    1. Where’s the beef?
    2. Show me the money!

    (1) 1984 Wendy’s TV ad with actress Clara Peller

    (2) 1996 Hollywood movie “Jerry Maguire” with Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding

  10. 10
    Tom Robbins says:

    Of course it can’t – if it could we would find examples of it today, at least on a small scale, but we don’t – information is immaterial and so is purposeful specified information. The idea that energy could create information once again takes scientists into the realm of miracles. The amount of time and money they have put into solving this, with absolutely zero luck, and yet we know from day to day experience we can get this type of highly specified info from a Mind, makes it a clear and proper hypothesis – that MIND came first, or at least that a MIND created the information and conditions for life. In fact, we see in the “impenetrable thicket of life” new information coming along at just the right time and in huge jumps, the fact that a new chromosome is present, where their was none before is proof that a Mind continues to exert a sustaining directed force – we never see “half” a chromosome or a new one forming.. Of course I believe that MIND created and maintains every second of every process in every cell, but the science support is very strong for this – why man is so arrogant, that he can’t let go of “you can’t get there from here” issues is mind-boggling to me – a philosophical and terribly dogmatic approach.

  11. 11
    Mung says:

    He argues at The Scientist for membrane bioenergetics

    Membrane of the gaps. 🙂

    We haven’t a clue how the first membranes came about. So that’s as good a place as any to put any additional ignorance we may have about cellular evolution.

  12. 12
    Mung says:

    Energy of the gaps. 🙂

    We don’t know what energy is, so we can always say “energy did it.”

  13. 13
    Tom Robbins says:

    The Million Monkeys with a typewriter + deep time idea is so ridiculous. Anyone who has taken Organic Chemistry, or anyone that knows how hard it is to “make” and PRESERVE the simplest Organic molecules, knows this is a fallacy. As soon as those monkey types, and the strike comes off the paper, the letter disappear. For this to have any credibility, you would need a designed, controlled environment to “hold” multiple amino acids (left handed no less) in a safe place, then the assembly may take place – but then you are back to the odds of even one normal sized protein forming by chance – BUT you MUST get past the impossible problem of Organics not degrading in the slightest, until enough of them are present to magically join a useful chain…. and yet we STILL hear the monkey’s at a typewriter argument. And the icing on the cake is that somehow this would all have to come together and be self-replicating, error correcting, and every one of the hundreds of proteins required to build one functional molecular machine all together at once – THEN their is the enzyme problem, most of the important Organic reactions require an enzyme, so that is one hell of a primordial soup – even if it existed, it would have to be planned down to the millisecond…..funny how these PHD scientists can stoop to the level of jumping past all the hollowed laws of physics and chemistry to claim some lucky boot strap of life…. and then they think their job is done, as once all this is “up”, unless their is a forward looking mechanism, the whole scenario goes way beyond absurd..

  14. 14
    Tom Robbins says:

    Very good replies here! Obviously we just don’t understand evolution enough to get it LOL…if you ever have heard Dawkins talk about how a bat wing could have came about from a proto-squirrel and did not come away laughing, then you need to go back and study some fundamentals. I am so glad it was he that presided over the angry championing and popularizing of the crashed and burned “selfish gene” concept – shows you that you can be popular, well educated, and still a moron. We are very arrogant to be here and start from the position that their is nothing else but what I can observe…therefore all my science will be limited to blind luck…and if I observe obvious data that does not fit this, I will hand wave it away or wright a fantasy novel…

  15. 15
    J-Mac says:

    I wonder if Nick explained the origins of genes that are nowhere to be found among prokaryotic cells that were needed for the endosymbiosis to happen in the first place?

    “Lateral gene transfer would explain how eukaryotes that supposedly evolved from an archaeal cell obtained so many bacterial genes important to metabolism: the eukaryotes picked up the genes from bacteria and kept those that proved useful. It would likewise explain how various archaea came to possess genes usually found in bacteria. Some molecular phylogenetic theorists—among them, Mitchell L. Sogin of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and Russell F. Doolittle (my very distant relative) of the University of California at San Diego—have also invoked lateral gene transfer to explain a longstanding mystery. Many eukaryotic genes turn out to be unlike those of any known archaea or bacteria; they seem to have come from nowhere”

    Uprooting the Tree of Life


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