Protocell Research: on the Verge of. . . a Dead End

Harvard Medical School scientists believe they are closer to creating life out of non-living matter—but there are good reasons to doubt it.

Molecular biologist Jack Szostak and his team are building “simple cell models that can almost be called life,”1 according to an online report. They hope these “protocells” made from fatty molecules will trap precursors to nucleic acids and hold them long enough for these chemical precursors to begin to copy themselves. Such replication is thought to have jump-started the evolution of life. In a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Szostak published his work on the special membranes he believes could have been involved in this process.2

Though considered “as close as anyone has ever come to turning chemicals into biological organisms,”1 this whole endeavor has immense hurdles to clear before it can demonstrate the possibility that life spontaneously generated from non-life. Here are just a few of the obstacles that, presuming the absence of God, natural processes must have overcome to create Szostak’s protocell:

IF neo-Darwinian evolution, which is supposed to involve nature selecting whole organisms from within a population, applies to raw chemicals, and
IF the first cell membrane was not made with phospholipids like all modern living cells, but instead with fatty acids, and

IF there was a nutrient-filled ocean on an early earth, and

IF those nutrients contained just the right “precursor” chemicals,3 and

IF those nutrients were optically purified (which science shows cannot happen without machines),4 and

IF those precursors could eventually morph into the chemicals of real life: DNA, RNA, proteins, vitamins, cholesterols, and certain carbohydrates (although chemistry has shown this is not possible without machines),5 and

IF those nutrients were highly concentrated in a small area, despite forces that would lead to their diffusion, and

IF fatty acids could spontaneously generate in a watery soup, and

IF the nutrient concentration coincided with a floating fatty acid bubble, and

IF the ocean had the proper pH required to form “vesicles” (bubbles assembled from the fatty acids to serve as containers for the new cells), and

IF the temperature in that ocean fluctuated precisely to disrupt the bubble’s integrity, permitting nutrients into (but not out of!) itself, and

IF oxygen, free radicals, other harmful chemicals, ultraviolet light, electricity, or any physical motions were not there to disrupt the delicate concoction, and

IF the high temperatures required to induce the bubble to assimilate small RNA-like bits, did not also break the precursors down before they “figured out” how to replicate or at least maintain themselves,6 and

IF the small-sized oily vesicles that formed spontaneously were to somehow expand, providing adequate internal space to house biochemical precursors, yet without losing structural integrity,
THEN we would have a chemical-containing bubble that is as close to a living cell as a desktop globe is to planet earth.

In short, the latest science has given us no reason to doubt a 48-year-old statement given by an honest scientist: “The physical chemist, guided by the proved principles of chemical thermodynamics and kinetics, cannot offer any encouragement to the biochemist, who needs an ocean full of organic compounds to form even lifeless coacervates.”6

Despite naturalistic claims, life is not simply the product of randomly accumulated chemical debris. A living body and a non-living body may share the same chemical make-up, but only one is alive. Life contains specific structures, as well as an encyclopedia’s worth of non-repeating information that provides the genetic instructions needed to sustain that life. Moreover, we consistently observe that these attributes simply do not arise naturally. Chemicals cannot create life—they can only maintain the life that is already present. Life is ultimately a gift of God.7


  1. Madrigal, A. 2008. Biologists on the Verge of Creating New Form of Life. Wired Science. Posted online September 8, 2008, accessed September 10, 2008.
  2. Mansy, S. S. and J. W. Szostak. 2008. Thermostability of model protocell membranes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105 (36): 13351.
  3. The “right” chemicals cannot be those found in living things today, for some of the small chemical building blocks that are present in living organisms cannot form spontaneously, and the prepared, pure chemicals undergo rapid degradation, especially in the presence of water, oxygen, and ultraviolet light. For more information, see Gish. D. 2007. A Few Reasons an Evolutionary Origin of Life Is Impossible. Acts & Facts. 36 (1).
  4. McCombs, C. 2004. Evolution Hopes You Don't Know Chemistry: The Problem with Chirality. Acts & Facts. 33 (5).
  5. Gish, D. 1976. Origin of Life: Critique of Early Stage Chemical Evolution Theories. Acts & Facts. 5 (1).
  6. Hull, D. E. 1960. Thermodynamics and Kinetics of Spontaneous Generation. Nature. 186: 693-695.
  7. Job 33:4.

* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer.

Article posted on September 16, 2008.

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