Solving the First-Life Phosphate Problem | The Institute for Creation Research
Solving the First-Life Phosphate Problem

Research associated with the Simos Foundation’s Collaboration of the Origins of Life offers a new answer to an old problem for getting a soup of chemicals to somehow turn into a living cell. Assuming that life arose spontaneously, how did the rarely available element phosphorus get concentrated into high enough amounts to supposedly incorporate itself into the many essential biochemicals that contain phosphorus?

DNA and RNA molecules come packed with phosphorus—and phosphorus forms part of proteins. You can’t have cellular life without all three types of these molecules: DNA, RNA, and proteins. In today’s world, phosphorus in watery solution readily binds calcium to form calcium phosphate minerals. Imagined early emerging cells could not access phosphate that was tied up in minerals. They would have needed some type of free-floating phosphates.

Jonathan Toner and David Caitling from the University of Washington described their solution to the phosphorus problem in their coauthored article appearing in the journal PNAS.1 In it, they propose that freely available phosphate could have concentrated in shallow, salty lakes.

If the imaginary ancient lakes had high enough carbonate content, the researchers argue, then that carbonate would shove some phosphates aside. This standard chemical process would produce calcium carbonate minerals in place of some calcium phosphate, liberating a few phosphates to spontaneously form living cells out of a dead soup.

Lead author Toner told the University of Washington, “It solves the phosphate problem in an elegant and plausible way.”2 Now, with the phosphate problem supposedly solved, does this increase the probability that a soup of chemicals would form a living cell?

It’s one thing for iron, carbon, and chromium to swirl together, but another thing entirely for those raw ingredients to form steel all by themselves. In fact, they don’t. People must combine them in specified ratios and conditions. Then to shape that steel into the forms needed to build a car represents an entirely separate and more sophisticated level of direction and skill.

The same logic applies to DNA, RNA, and proteins—and entire cells. Just because you have some DNA does not necessarily mean it contains biological information. Programming is required. But naturalists, by definition, disdain any notion of a programmer.

Study author Caitling said, “The extremely high phosphate levels in these lakes and ponds would have driven reactions that put phosphorus into the molecular building blocks of RNA, proteins, and fats, all of which were needed to get life going.”2

So, phosphate would have driven reactions to put itself into RNA and proteins? Which chemistry experiments show that has ever happened?

Instead, their drying lake scenario places phosphate in watery solution—a lethal problem for the origin of life. Water destroys DNA, RNA and protein, ensuring that these vital biochemicals would never form outside of purposeful, protective, precise boundaries like those that envelop living cells.3

Even provided all the phosphate one could wish, the old life-from-soup scenarios “suffer from bioenergetic and thermodynamic failings.”4 Not to mention the specification of programming language that living cells require.5

Cellular life doesn’t just need phosphorus. It needs proteins to integrate phosphorus into its DNA, RNA, and proteins. It needs water to mobilize chemicals, but cannot form with water around. It needs energy but cannot access energy without the cellular energy systems already in place. It needs encyclopedias of growth, adaptation, and maintenance instructions, but cannot write any information on its own. In short, it needs help from outside the universe.

This recent phosphorus study only solves the phosphate problem for life’s origin in one’s imagination. In reality, the watery surroundings of phosphate soup douse sparks of life’s required chemicals.

1. Toner, J. D., and D. C. Caitling. 2019. A carbonate-rich lake solution to the phosphate problem of the origin of life. PNAS.
2. Hickey, H. Life could have emerged from lakes with high phosphorus. University of Washington News. Posted on December 30, 2019, accessed December 30, 2019.
3. Tomkins, J. 2018. Abiogenesis: Water and Oxygen Problems. Acts & Facts. 47 (4): 8-9.
4. New Research Rejects 80-year Theory of ‘Primordial Soup’ as the Origin of Life. Wiley-Blackwell press release, February 2, 2010.
5. Johnson, D. In Marks, R. J., M. J. Behe, W. A. Dembski, B. L. Gordon, and J. C. Sanford, Eds. 2013. Biological Information: New Perspectives. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd.

Dr. Thomas is a Research Associate at the Institute for Creation Research and earned his Ph.D. in paleobiochemistry from the University of Liverpool.

The Latest
Is Evolution ‘Fake Science’?
The organization BioLogos, which advocates that Christians accept secular evolutionary claims, recently published an online essay entitled “How to...

Cambrian Explosion Alive and Well
A new editorial in GSA Today is claiming that secular scientists should cease using the term “Cambrian Explosion.”1 It’s not...

Abraham Ate Bananas?
Since the word banana does not occur in Scripture, any evidence of bananas in ancient Middle Eastern diets would have to come from the ground. New research...

3-D Human Genome Radically Different from Chimp
All plant and animal genomes studied so far exhibit complex and distinct three-dimensional (3-D) structures in their chromosome configurations depending...

Amazonian Artwork and the Post-Flood Ice Age
An extensive series of South American Ice Age artwork may be of interest to biblical creationists. In 2017 and 2018, scientists discovered a nearly eight-mile-long...

Creation Kids: Dinosaurs
You’re never too young to be a creation scientist! Kids, discover fun facts about God’s creation with ICR’s special Creation Kids learning...

Inside January 2021 Acts & Facts
How is ICR winning science and scientists back to Christ? What is the significance of fossil bone collagen discoveries? Did pterosaurs have feathers?...

Savvy Sons of Light
Many Christians grow uncomfortable when their pastor teaches about money. If it’s any consolation, I know many pastors who feel the same way....

Did God Make Harmful Parasites in the Beginning?
Parasites are a unique form of life in today’s world. These invertebrates come in all shapes and sizes, from single-cell animals (e.g., Plasmodium...

False Hypotheticals—Beyond Darwin's Imagination
Don’t believe it if someone tells you that a pair of “walking whale”-like mammals trudged off the Ark and later procreated a line...