Friday, February 28, 2014

Life's Beginnings

An ISEPP lecture, meaning STEM-oriented, science, engineering... in a church though.  The Schnitzer is a great venue but when the economy took a hit so did we and this church is right next door.  Our speakers get a kick out of speaking in a House of God I think, more theatrical than just a theater.

Dr. Michael Russell is out of the box brilliant, and although from Britain, he loves LA, and JPL of Cal Tech is lucky to have him (my view).  He knows his molecules really well, in the context of microbiology, and he's willing to risk a big picture theory, regarding life's origins.

In my youth, Genesis had long been superseded by lightning in primordial soup producing amino acids.  In this new narrative, the gigantic convection currents that lead to a parting of the plates on the one hand, and their subduction on the other, with continental drift on the surface, means lots of opportunities for heat to escape, and not just heat, but minerals, catalyzing agents, an environment rich in possibilities once these jetting hot metals reach the deep sea, which covered the whole planet back then (we're going back billions of years here).

His insights into how our cells power the ATP cycle was the best I've ever heard.  Hydrogen ions get pushed out to the exterior creating a disequilibrium, and in coming back in, they're forced to do work.

It's all about hydrolyzing CO2.  That's the essence of life's energy pathway, though he takes it further, he hopes through the "vinegar" stage at least in his experiments.  I'm skipping over a lot of fine points, really the main points of his theory, so just use this to get the flavor then dig into it yourself.

In our epoch, and in many before ours, photosynthesis has been the prime mover, when it comes to producing the organic compounds of life.  But in early Earth, the womb of life would be the ocean floor, and interface between heated basic minerals and acidic solvents -- an life-friendly energy gradient.

We adjourned to the Heathman for another stellar serving, this time of bovine (steak or a vegetarian lasagna).  We appreciate the service this venerable hotel has rendered over the years, to our many venerable guests, to our sponsors.  My sense of privilege is appropriately sky high and I am grateful for our little after-dinner Q&As with these MVPs in their fields.

Dr. Russell is a geologist by training and examining formations in Ireland is was led to a thermodynamic hypothesis that anticipated the discovery of undersea "smokers" and later the million-year-old vents, cool enough to encourage life, places where inner-Earth heat escapes to the ocean in molten form.

At this interface, of mineral and symbiotic sea, the chances of life become high over time, in back of the napkin calculations.  So it's not lightning in the primordial sea anymore.  There's another contender.  I was happy to take that in.