Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a news article with the exciting headline:
“No water needed: Methane-based life possible on Saturn’s moon Titan, study says.”
Quite remarkable! Amazing enough to immediately attract my friend’s attention and to get him to shoot an email to me with the link, as he knows I am interested in the field.
Yet, if the headline weren’t exciting enough, the first sentence of the news article really amps up the message:
Researchers from the Cornell University have developed a methane-based, oxygen-free life form that theoretically may exist in the cold and harsh environment of the planet Saturn’s giant moon Titan, defying the idea that water is necessary for life.
This is truly an astonishing feat! Researchers have finally developed a new “life form.” And a methane-based one at that.
Now at this point, a few red flags should have been raised in the mind of anyone who is passingly familiar with origin of life research. Indeed, there should be a whole field of red flags waving and snapping smartly in the wind like the Hammer and Sickle on a frigid Moscow (or Titan) morning.
Our pulse racing at the news, we scarcely get to the next paragraph before the letdown.
Scientists modeled the cell membrane of small organic nitrogen compounds, and it can function in extremely cold liquid methane temperatures . . .
Oh, wait. You mean they didn’t actually develop a new life form?
No. They modeled. As in, a computer simulation. As in, not in the lab. As in, not real.
But still, generating a realistic model of a “new life form” on the computer is pretty impressive, right?
Yes, it would be. But notice they didn’t simulate a new life form. Just a “cell membrane.”
“Rats,” we mutter, as our hope sinks . . .
But wait! It is still pretty impressive to model a whole new type of cell membrane, with a methane-based fluid, rather than good ol’ H2O. After all, a cell membrane is a remarkably complex structure, with pores and pathways and regulatory elements to control flow in and out of the cell.
Unfortunately, our disappointment has not yet ended. What one sentence giveth, the next taketh away:
The cell is made of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen molecules: they exist in the Titan seas, but simultaneously demonstrate flexibility and stability of the liposome on Earth . . .
Hold on a minute. What is that word “liposome” doing in there? A liposome as you, dear reader, are no doubt aware, is typically defined along the following lines: “a microscopic artificial sac composed of fatty substances and used in experimental research of the cell.” An “artificial sac” . . . used in research? Yes. Otherwise known as a “spherule.” As long as we’re at it, let’s bring it down to common parlance: it is a “bubble.”
A liposome, as you know, is typically made up of 2 or 3 molecules that attract and/or repel each other in the presence of a specific liquid, such that an initial sheet of bonded molecules is formed, which eventually folds over on itself to create a bubble or sphere in the liquid. (A soap bubble forming in water is an example of a similar process, though of course less stable than the liposomes studied in origin of life research.)
Forming a liposome in water is old hat. But doing so in the presence of methane is something of a novelty – thus the cited research and the press story. Good research, to be sure, and worthy of a news report.
Yet a “cell membrane,” it is most certainly not. Not even close.
Whence the Interest?
The reason liposomes are interesting in origin of life research is not because they are actually close to being a cell membrane, or because they actually carry out the more complex functions of a cell membrane, or because they could realistically lead to the formation of a cell membrane, but for two reasons:
First, if you look at a liposome, cock your head to the side just right, stick out your tongue, squint, and don’t ask too many hard questions – if you do all that, then a liposome appears to be kind of, sort of, a little bit like a cell membrane.
Second, one of the (many) sticky issues for a naturalistic origin of life scenario is the problem of interfering cross reactions. It is such a problem that it effectively prevents any nascent information-rich molecule (say, the proto-RNA or proto-DNA) from properly forming in the first place, and certainly from staying properly formed for any length of time. Thus, some kind of isolated location – a chamber, a vessel, a mud globule, a liposome – is required to isolate the precious, soon-to-be-living chemical constituents. Thus researchers have turned to liposomes as a potential answer, because, hey, in theory some nucleotides or amino acids or other molecules could get caught in some kind of a microscopic bubble where they are protected from the outside environment. In such a protective shell, those molecules would interact with each other, and it is imagined they might form . . . oh, maybe, a larger molecule . . . which in turn might form, say, some even larger molecule . . . which in turn would either be inert and do nothing or would itself likely cause interfering cross reactions, leading to a useless sludge . . . which in turn . . . oh, forget it.
But the point is that a liposome is extremely useful to at least get the storyline off the ground, if not life itself.
So researchers continue with their liposomes and imagine as they gaze lovingly at their creations that they are dealing with some kind of early cell membrane. Or when they are really trying to score some points, that they have created an early “proto-cell” or some such hypothetical entity. Yet in hushed whispers among colleagues, or when pressed by someone knowledgeable, or when they have let their guard down after a few drinks at the pub, they will acknowledge that they have not created a cell. Nor a cell membrane. Nor anything like unto it.
As is too often the case, the headlines and opening paragraphs of the news reports bear little resemblance to the actual research. If one knows something about the area of research and knows how to read between the lines, one can sometimes tease out what the researchers actually did from the news report, as is the case here. But the poor unsuspecting public is left with the impression that researchers have developed a new methane-based life form.
In fairness, the researchers never claimed to have done any such thing. Their original press release is more sanguine about the results, although it does include some overly-optimistic language and even a few zingers. For example, explaining why they were able to produce results that others had not, one researcher noted:
We didn’t come in with any preconceptions about what should be in a membrane and what shouldn’t.
Now before you laugh at that quote, I am confident the researcher was simply referring to the fact that they looked at the problem from a new perspective, rather than with the blinders occasionally worn by veterans in a specialized field, and that this was an advantage in this particular case. Fair enough. But I can’t help notice the irony in the quote. Yes, intrepid researcher, it seems that you indeed came in with no idea what would be required for a real cell membrane. Makes it so much easier that way to achieve impressive appearing results . . .
One can of course argue that researchers are completely divorced from the headlines that accompany their work. “I just do great research and write solid papers,” they might object. “What the news outlets do with it from there is nothing I can control.”
Sure. But you could, one might think, reign in your own university press department to be a bit more clear about the results. And it would be quite easy to contact a science writer to correct the record. No, not every time, of course; that is not realistic. But it would be nice to see it happen occasionally, particularly with egregious misrepresentations of your work.
On the other hand, dear reader, would you take the time to correct a highly flattering news story if you were in their shoes. C’mon. Would you rather have a headline that says “Researcher Develops New Methane-Based Life Form,” or “Researcher Creates Bubbles in Methane”? It isn’t even a contest.
What seems to have happened here is the all-too-typical series of steps:
1. Researchers carry out some interesting and valuable work.
2. Researchers publish a paper that accurately reports their work, but which also throws in a few inevitably tantalizing “possibles” and “what-if’s” about the greater implications of their work – some perhaps justified, others perhaps built upon the all-too-human desire for recognition and the need for future funding.
3. University press department gets ahold of the paper and writes up a congratulatory and highly flattering press release. The press release exaggerates the research just slightly and throws in a few speculative quotes that go beyond the actual results, but not so much so that the researchers feel they need to battle their own press department to correct the record.
4. Science writer at a news organization sees the university press release and writes a news story. If they are knowledgable and professional, they might fudge just a bit to get a catchy headline and attract eyeballs, making sure, of course, to set the record straight deeper into the actual story. If they are clueless as to the research or less professional, then all bets are off, as seems to have been the case here.
And so, in the course of just a few steps, the research can progress from: (i) running a computer simulation, to (ii) actually making liposomes of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen in methane, to (iii) creating a “cell membrane,” to (iv) developing a new methane-based life form.
It’s all very easy, really. A new life form in just four easy steps!
All you have to do is play a little loose with the facts, avoid asking the hard questions, and use a healthy dose of imagination.
Kind of like the theory of abiogenesis itself.