Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Spontaneous Origin of Life

Abiogenesis Experiment - Sheva Apelbaum
The Spontaneously Self-Activating Clock

I love reading the Eyewitness Books series.  The pictures are interesting and you can learn a lot without getting into too much detail.  Whenever I get a chance, I try to convince my mom and dad to buy more even though they are a bit pricey.
One of the volumes I read recently discussed the origin of life.  The interesting thing about this book was that while other books usually gave a detailed explanation of all facts (with plenty of illustrations), the volume about the origin of life on earth only provided suggestions as to how it might have begun.

The book described the following three theories:

1. Divine - Life was created by God
2. Extraterrestrial - Life arrived to earth on a comet, asteroid or meteor from another planet or star
3. Abiogenesis (chemical evolution) - Life developed spontaneously all by itself from a mixture of chemicals

I am familiar with option 1 as I have read the creation story in the book of Genesis many times.  I like this option because I see other intelligent designs in nature (I will cover these in my upcoming Fibonacci numbers & Nature blog). I have also heard about option 2 (I like the Jimmy Neutron version of alien life), but I find it hard to believe that a simple living cell would actually be able to survive a long space flight in the extremes of space (−454° F and near vacuum conditions) for possibly hundreds of thousands of years before arriving to earth.

Option 3 confused me, though.  I can understand how a simple living cell like a bacteria could, over many billions of years, evolve to a more sophisticated (and cute) creature like my cat, Mango, but I still can’t understand how just mixing chemicals together and exposing them to electricity, heat, or radiation can create a living and reproducing cell.

How is it possible that a mixture of chemicals without any direction can spontaneously assemble itself and then continue to do so?  To try to test this theory, I performed an experiment. I wanted to test if a complicated device (like a living cell) could spontaneously assemble itself and, once assembled, could continue to function.

Instead of using an actual living cell (which I don’t know how to assemble by myself or prevent it from dying), my dad and I  built a similar but simpler device that would help explain this problem.

Experiment Parts 
1. Electric alarm clock
2. Large glass jar
3. A pair of copper electrodes
4. 2 sets of copper wires

Putting it Together We attached the copper and brass electrodes to the glass jar and attached one set of copper wire to the bottom and top of each electrode. We then removed the cover of the alarm clock and connected the wires to the bottom of the electrodes on the clock’s battery terminals (Images 1 and 2).

  Self-Activating Clock 1 - Sheva Apelbaum
Image 1: The Clock’s Electrodes

Self-Activating Clock 2 - Sheva Apelbaum
Image 2: The Clock’s Wiring

We tested our device by attaching an AAA battery to the external wires connected to the top of the electrodes to make sure the alarm clock functioned properly. The second hand did move and the alarm sounded so we found that it did work.

The Hypothesis If a complicated device like a living cell can spontaneously assemble itself and find a source of energy to do so, so should a simple electric clock which is similar (even simpler!) than a living cell.  To make it even easier, we used an assembled and functional clock (all the right chemicals are in the right places). That means that the only thing we were missing was a supply of a small continuous electric current in order to activate the clock and keep it working.

The Experiment
We reset the clock to exactly 12:00 and disconnected the battery and placed it nearby.  We noted the time on the clock on a daily basis for a year.

The Results After a year of observations, the clock was still showing 12:00 and the alarm did not sound.

The Conclusion The living cell is a complicated device. According to theory number 3, it first has to assemble itself, then learn how to stay alive (find food) and reproduce itself.  The clock, on the other hand, came fully assembled and already functional. Although it only required a steady supply of a small amount of electric current to activate itself, it failed to even do that.

Now that we have done this experiment, I think that if a device as simple as an alarm clock didn’t spontaneously activate itself even though there was plenty of electricity around (lightning, static, a nearby battery), then a more complex device like a living cell would probably not succeed either.


  1. Hi Sheva - wow, what an experiment!
    So, what is your conclusion? Option #1?
    Will we ever know for sure?
    Looking at the splendor of nature it is very
    tempting to believe that there is some - how to say? - let's say some force behind it.
    Speaking of myself, I find it hard to believe
    in evolution - but I also have no prove on any
    thing else...
    But the Extraterrestrials are out for me...
    Thank's for feeding my brain!

  2. I love your experiment! Hmmmm, how did it all begin? It must have taken an immeasurable amount of time, but let me think--we are assuming that we, as living organisms with dividing cells are able to answer this question, 'How did life begin?'. I am sceptical I will ever be able to answer this question. But it's a question that begs to be answered! And that's where the metaphor comes in!

  3. the Rambam (Maimonides) said that God is the cause of all existence, he created the universe and all that exists in it (matter and life). Newton added that "gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” I’m voting for option 1.

  4. I believe in option 1 (with evolution following up), I am just not sure about the details of how God went about doing it.

    I am planning to spend some time in the future looking into this puzzle. I will post updates when I have any. :-)

  5. We are reading the Bible in Hebrew just now (you remember, my husband reading to me?), the creation part is beautiful, but I am still not convinced, there are so many facts against it. And sooooo many open questions...
    BUT I do very much enjoy all that wonderful stuff that came out of either option!!!!

  6. You're experiment was conducted for 1 year while chemicals had billions of years. Even if the clock had access to plenty of resources for electric stimulation to trigger an alarm, it's hard to say that 1 year is enough time. I'm going to predict that if you left the clock and waited a few hundred years, the clock might eventually tip over due to externally changing forces and land on some battery and trigger an alarm. If not that, then maybe the house that the clock is in will wear away and the rain storms that rain on the clock will shock the clock and an alarm will trigger. But by the time any of that happens, the clock will most likely have decayed away. I still vote for Option 3 as scientists have shown how basic nucleic acids and amino acids can be formed in prebiotic conditions. Interesting experiment nonetheless.