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Dave DeamerRSS Feed of this column.

My research focuses on a variety of topics related to membrane biophysics, including the origin of cell membranes and the use of transmembrane nanopores to analyze nucleic acids. Over the past

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There must have been an abundant source of free energy on the early Earth that could produce the polymers required for natural experiments leading to the origin of life.

What was it?
 “May you live in interesting times!” So goes the ancient Chinese curse, and times certainly must have been interesting for Alexander Ivanovich Oparin, who was 23 years old when he graduated from Moscow State University in 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had just seized power, the Czar and his family were imprisoned, then assassinated a year later, and the war between Red and White Russia began.
In the last few columns, I described how laboratory simulations of a volcanic prebiotic environment showed that interesting organic reactions can be driven by the heat and pressure associated with vulcanism. I also described my own studies of volcanic sites on the present Earth, which we call prebiotic analogue environments, and pointed out some of the problems that arise when we try to duplicate laboratory experiments in the real world geothermal conditions. 

In the comments following the column, Gerhard Adam suggested that ice might be a plausible alternative to a hot site for the origin of life.

When we think of volcanic conditions, our minds leap to images of vast eruptions like Mount St. Helens in Washington State, or lava oozing down the slopes of Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii. With my family, I once visited that lava flow.

We are used to stones being “rock solid” but here molten orange-hot rock oozes across a two-lane road and pours over a cliff, causing clouds of steam to erupt from the Pacific Ocean.

My daughter Ásta, five years old at the time, was understandably very suspicious of the stuff and would not go near the lava flow. It radiated an oven-like heat, even from fifty feet away. 

In 1988, Günter Wächtershäuser published a remarkable idea that excited tremendous interest, even being featured in a Scientific American article. It ran counter to prevailing ideas about the origin of life, and suggested new experimental approaches involving mineral interfaces. Wächtershäuser is a patent lawyer in Munich, Germany who enjoys fabricating intricate and novel approaches to the origin of life, then challenging others to test them. He is greatly influenced by the philosopher Karl Popper, who made the point that explanations are useless unless they are falsifiable.

    Last week I described how John Oro discovered that five hydrogen cyanide molecules (HCN) could react to produce adenine (H5C5N5) one of the primary components of nucleic acids.