Here is the quote from the Jack W. Szostak interview:
We think that a primitive cell has to have two parts. First, it has to have a cell membrane that can be a boundary between itself and the rest of the earth. And then there has to be some genetic material, which has to perform some function that’s useful for the cell and get replicated to be inherited. The part we’ve come to understand reasonably well is the membrane part. The genetic material is the harder problem; the chemistry is just more complicated. The puzzle has been understanding how a molecule like RNA can get replicated before there were enzymes and all this fancy biological stuff, protein machinery, that we have now in our cells.
I am a software engineer with tens of years of experience of implementing
A sane software engineer when given a new project, it has a well defined
approach for taking the project from a starting idea to the final, working
One of the first steps of this professional approach is to write a
“Requirement Specification” to clearly, neatly and accurately specify
each and every demand that need to be fulfilled by the final product.
I thought that it would be very instructive to only START sketching
such a “Minimum Requirements Specification for a Most-Primitive Life Form”
and after a first sketch to compare notes with Mr. Jack W. Szostak
statements in his interview.
Below you can find the first iteration of such requirement specification,
and detailed (somewhat, but not too much) only for the first of the eight
major requirements. Please do not forget, that this is the first write up,
produced with not too much thought – where I am sure I may have missed many
other major requirements.
– we will call this “most primitive” form of life a “cell” – for convenience
– we will call the needed boundary of this ‘cell’ a ‘membrane’
Here is the Initial Requirement List:
1. The cell must have a physical boundary around its volume to clearly
delimit the inside of the cell from outside of the cell. Let’s call
this boundary “membrane”
List of minimum requirements for the membrane of the cell
1.1. Must provide reliable isolation of the cell content from the
1.2. Must be “permeable” to specific materials or sources of energy
that “feeds” the cell
1.3. Must have ‘substance recognition’ capabilities in order to
allow or prohibit admission inside the cell of the good respective
bad ‘materials’ (sensory capability).
1.4. Must have ‘open gate through membrane’ and ‘close gate through
membrane’ reactions and mechanisms to open ‘pores’ (openings)
in the membrane when good versus bad ‘materials’ are recognized
outside or inside the membrane (reactive capability).
1.5. INFORMATIONAL SUPPORT PERSPECTIVE:
1.5.1. The membrane must exhibit a capacity to store and process
information locally about the nature/identity of the good
materials as well as about bad materials. Logically
that is equivalent with a ‘registry’ of good/bad
1.5.2. Pattern recognition: the membrane must have pattern
recognition informational capabilities to accurately
recognize any ‘material’ (or ‘material pattern’) that
is available in its own ‘registry’ memory and to
send appropriate signals to the control agents in the
membrane when such materials are detected in its
external or internal environment.
1.5.3. The membrane must have a set of control mechanisms
on how to react to an ‘inventory’ of stored information
of good and bad materials, in particular on what
membrane ‘pores’ to open or to close when particular
materials are identified.
1.5.4. Most probable the membrane should have ability to
‘communicate’ information/signals to the inside the
cell when material ‘signatures’ are detected.
(information communication and signaling)
2. The cell must have mechanisms to feed itself from outside world with
specific substances that provide food/sources of energy for the
(metabolism) processes that animate the cell.
3. The cell must have mechanisms to replicate itself into one or more
similar descendent cells that exhibit the same behaviors and capabilities
as the mother cell.
4. The cell should/may have mobility in order to leave a world environment
that it detects as unfavorable and move toward other areas of the
environment that are more favorable to its continued existence and
5. The cell should/may have mechanism to ‘sense’ its environment and to
‘react’ accordingly. To ‘recognize’ ‘favorable’ conditions/elements in its
environment as well as ‘recognize’ unfavorable conditions/elements
in its environment.
6. The cell must have ability to transform the raw materials/energy
received from environment through its membrane and transform them
into different type of materials that are proper for its own internal
7. The cell should/may have capability of identifying ‘refuse’ materials
resulting from its material transformation and conversion processes
and forcing these ‘refuse’ out of the cell through the membrane to
8. The cell should/may have time measuring / time signaling capabilities
in order to control its own material input, material transformation,
material output and cell replication processes on specific timelines
and coordinated schedules.
I develop to the next level of detail only the ‘membrane requirements’ for this
‘most primitive’ form of life.
I guess that some serious thought on these major requirements will distil
into somewhat unexpected – but logically defensible – lower level
requirements that involve information processing, material transportation,
information communication inside the cells – that, together will construct
an objective picture of the REAL COMPLEXITY that would be required for
such a MOST PRIMITIVE FORM OF LIFE.
What is not immediately apparent for anyone is that the living world and all
its members manifest – it’s true, in a varied degree – the “autonomy”
characteristic which is another name for ‘viability’ ‘survivability’.
This autonomy capability is extremely complex, demanding and multi-faceted
and is also “extremely expensive” to “implement” by a designer,
by evolution or by any entity.
Let’s do not forget that humankind in its most advanced state of
technological progress, was not ever capable of dreaming to construct
any artifact to an approaching level of autonomy – as it is routinely
end richly encountered among the members of the living world.
In conclusion, Mr. Jack W. Szostak – the Nobel laureate – seems to be
extremely naive and ‘uneducated’ about the complexity of the task
he started on about 25 years ago: to figure out the origin of life.