Cyanide -- An Ingredient for Life?

by Dr. Charles McCombs, Ph.D., and Brian Thomas, M.S.*

Evolutionary researchers have engaged in many speculations about how the first cell might have emerged naturally from chemicals with no supernatural (or other) intervention. One new idea involves life getting its start from the deadly compound cyanide. Why are researchers turning to such an unlikely source?

Prior naturalistic origin-of-life scenarios have fallen short. One of the thousands of hurdles required for the emergence of the first cell is that sufficient organic molecules must have been available for its formation. But according to evolutionary history, these complex, carbon-containing molecules could not have come from the early earth because earth would have “formed too close to the sun for such compounds to condense.”1

Alternatively, Stanley Miller’s famous 1953 experiment initially gave hope that science would soon create life in a test tube, but the scenario of a lightning strike kick-starting life would have required “an early atmosphere full of methane and hydrogen, and later studies of the ancient geological record have suggested that was unlikely.”1 Some of the oldest sedimentary rocks were formed in the presence of oxygen, and oxygen destroys raw organic materials.2

A proposed solution is that perhaps organic molecules could have been brought to earth by collisions with comets or asteroids. But one major problem has been that “the tremendous heat of impact would have burned up much of that material.”1 Is there some natural process that could overcome this destructive heat?

Seiji Sugita of the University of Tokyo, Japan, and Peter Schultz of the University of Providence, Rhode Island, performed high-speed impact experiments to answer this question, the results of which were published in Geophysical Research Letters.3 These were used to support their conjecture that “life may have been built on a foundation of cyanide formed in the fiery wakes of asteroids plunging through the Earth’s atmosphere.”1

Sugita and Schultz simulated asteroid and comet impacts by firing projectiles, made of polycarbonate, as fast as six kilometers per second at metal targets at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The projectiles were vaporized in a flash of light, just as an asteroid or comet would have been on impact with earth’s surface. Analysis of the flashes revealed the presence of cyanide radicals formed by a chemical reaction between the projectiles’ carbon and earth’s atmospheric nitrogen.

New Scientist reported that “cyanide compounds are very reactive, so further reactions involving them on early Earth could have led to more complex carbon-containing molecules important to life.” However, even an infinite amount of complexity falls short of the requirements for living systems, which are also specified by an information-rich blueprint―something that no natural process makes.4

Could cyanide be the next new component in the recipe for life? It’s highly unlikely, since cyanide radicals, like other free radicals, are so reactive that they would totally destroy all building blocks for proteins and DNA that might be present, even in the absence of oxygen.

Despite what is known of its destructive chemistry, if cyanide were assumed to be a new source of organic material, it would not help a forming cell to store and process information, metabolize energy, copy all essential cellular components into a subsequent generation, and keep itself separate itself from—and yet interact with—its environment. And even if cyanide somehow overcame these hurdles, its presence would create a very toxic environment for any newly formed organism.

Instead of trying to add one more ingredient to the recipe for life, researchers might have more success just asking who wrote that recipe. If natural processes could not have made it, and yet it exists, then there is evidence for an intelligent Creator. The data fit creation.


  1. Shiga, D. Was life founded on cyanide from space crashes? New Scientist. Posted on November 6, 2009, accessed November 10, 2009.
  2. Thomas, B. Ancient Oxygen-Rich Rocks Confound Evolutionary Timescale. ICR News. Posted on April 8, 2009, accessed November 17, 2009.
  3. Sugita, S. and P. H. Schultz. 2009. Efficient cyanide formation due to impacts of carbonaceous bodies on a planet with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere. Geophysical Research Letters. 36 (20): L20204.
  4. See Thomas, B. 2008. More Than Just "Complex." Acts & Facts. 37 (12): 15.

* Dr. McCombs is Associate Professor of Chemistry and Mr. Thomas is Science Writer at the Institute for Creation Research.

Article posted on November 30, 2009.