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Madame Curie Bioscience Database [Internet]. Austin (TX): Landes Bioscience; 2000-2013.

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The Invariance Concept


Tucked away, if it were possible, within the hollow of the tip of a dart gun needle aimed at man or beast one could make a memorable discovery. Just a moment after skin penetration the overwhelming impression would be ‘sameness’. A human, a pachyderm, a mouse, a rat, donkey, ape, in all cases the first experience is the epidermis, then the dermis, a layer of fat and collagen followed by muscles and sometimes a hard landing on a bone. If the needle were fine enough to penetrate the cell membrane and the nuclear envelope, the likeness would stretch to almost all of life because one would see strings of ATCGTACGCGG—as far as the eye reaches. How can the core of everything be so alike when creatures are as different as elephants and hummingbirds or tunicates and pigs? By reflex most biologists will point to a common ancestor that lived during the Hadean.1,2 The new model suggests that the common ancestor did not live but that the universality of the physics that underlies chemistry had played the role of the pluri-potent ancestor.3 The number of possible chemical compounds is nearly limitless which raises questions as to how fundamental mechanisms could have come out so uniform.

It is a peculiar type of restriction that dominated the biogenesis scene. The first phase is carbon chemistry of the Miller-Urey type which led to the production of nucleic acids and amino acids among other molecules.4 Nucleic acids were the gate, the nozzle through which everything that would be part of life needed to pass and from experience we know about the tendency of chemistry to favor, above other compounds, the production of these biomolecules. Passive selection of constituents continued, guided only by what is thermodynamically favorable, until the first stages of self-replication became important. It does not take much imagination to see that nothing had a chance in competition with nucleic acids. Other compounds formed crystalline structures of billions of molecules but without the potential to produce informative defects. Errors in crystalline structures are too rare to carry the amount of information that living systems require.5 In contrast, the structure of nucleic acid is semi-crystalline but has an error (information) at every level of the helix. Life is built from the “memory out” toward the periphery and since the memory always reads [(A)x (T)x (C)y (G)y ] the nucleic acids in widely separated origins did not look much different. Nucleic acids work like the monotonous binary code tape of a “Turing Machine”, a reading device that gives patterns of zeros’ and ones’ to which a meaning can be attached only after one decides what the blocks of symbols are to represent. The 4 bits of our nucleic acids, A, T, C, G provide a greater information density than a Turing tape and therefore a much shorter DNA string is sufficient to spell out a structure so complex that the most refined feature of the living world, the human brain, cannot comprehend it.

Polymerization of nucleotides was the founding event, the “big bang of biology” which led to the self-perpetuating structures. Nucleotides were the last representatives of the “forgetting” world; polynucleotides are memory bits of significantly greater information density than silicon chips, they represent the ultimate nanotechnology. Once polymerization had begun the chemical pools became ancestors. The polymers will have been different in detail but in every location themes of the primary polymers plus variations would have been recognizable if one were to analyze the nucleotide sequence of each pool. One could mentally follow the world line of each of the biogenic pools to the time of fruition and note that each would evolve different species and variants of multicellular life and others, perhaps the majority, would remain single cellular.

Presently the “dart needle perspective” makes sense. The basic material must have been the same to make a living creature. The early conditions that led to life are as restricting as the apertures the physicists use to analyze radiation except, as biology progresses, the holes get wider. The dart needle and its passenger, penetrating the skin, the cell and finally the nucleus, traveled backwards in evolutionary time through the apertures to the absolutely required initial structures, the nucleic acid core (see Fig. 1).

Proteins, the catalytic surface of life as well as the structural framework, represent a derived complexity, which is accessible only via the nucleic acid level of organization. Thus, when thinking of the multiple origin concept one must think of the nucleotide level information as a keyboard of genomic material which, if played by proper control mechanisms, can give rise to different organisms. The control mechanisms in turn are the products of intragenomic chemistry and the first layer of subordinate control may be the homeo genes that control protein expression along the spinal axis in vertebrate animals and in segments in invertebrates.6–8

Proteins are unstable yet their production is an inevitable step on the way from nucleic acid to life. While there is latitude in terms of the kind of proteins acquired, as concerns the functions of these proteins there are significant restrictions. Their catalytic activity must be supportive and not destructive for the parent organism. All conditions are de facto rectifiers that tend to spread uniformity.

The triplet code gives life to the bio-memory structure but again without any overt wisdom. One must leave open the possibility of a deeper and not immediately obvious connection between nucleic acids and L-amino acids9 that might have helped to establish reading breaks and on-off signals.10 These are deep waters to cross but, once the hypothesis has gained some ground, investigators will find it worthwhile to examine the nuclear reactions for a structural rationale.

Whatever the outcome one can be sure that a physical contact type selection has led to the genomic code. Not only does the new hypothesis predict such contact, the status of evolution as discipline of science depends upon it. Frozen accidents are not the stuff of hypotheses but more likely failures of insight. This means that the principle of code development is discoverable and with it, slowly to be sure, the whole mechanism of biochemical evolution.

Clonal development of life means condensation of pieces of memory from a pool of limited volume until enough functions can be read from the nucleic acids core to support autonomy. A smooth transition of complex chemistry to complex biochemistry must proceed through stable (immortal) steps, and products that last until the next addition sparks the processes of life. The prediction that these ‘assembly functions’ should show a great deal of similarity among the majority of life forms is based upon the simple argument that in biogenic pools the constituents must have been similar within limits and that significant differences are only recognized when the units start to metabolize. In spite of different potentials (DNA sequences) the first expression of life was probably rudimentary which is why the survival functions like energy storage, locomotion, and support look today as we see them from our perch in the dart-gun needle. All additional complexity is organizational rather than fundamental, and those organizational levels are presently under scrutiny.11,12

The membrane has the premier function in the process of biogenesis. It allows for individual ownership and retention of biocatalysts, and thereby for up to a million fold increases in catalytic activity. Substrate/enzyme ratios in cells may approach unity and thus enzymes can actually change the equilibrium of some reactions. Clearly, membranes are essential and the hurdle for nascent life is the need for a selectively permeable membrane that means a membrane that contains, suspended in its lipid layers, the first communication proteins.13,14 The cell must breathe at once if there is to be any future and that again equalizes units from different clones. Is it surprising then that all life forms have membranes? Shapeless wafting life is a thing of poor science fiction. Membrane formation is the moment when life became competitive, it was the scientific version of the expulsion from paradise and it was not just bread one was to eat but also the evolutionary cohorts.

Post-assembly functions show larger differences between taxa because those functions are due to clone-specific genomic organization (not due to mutated enzymes that work differently). The sequence of A,T,C and G’s in nucleic acids differs between clones because chemistry only specifies the general structure and complementarity between strands, not the sequence of the first strand. Writing messages is done by essentially identical mechanisms throughout life, but what is written is not the same and thus, very early on species and variants appear; kingdoms, phyla, classes, orders et cetera, had to wait until Homo sapiens finally arrived to invent them, these are not natural divisions.

The crucial difference between the new model and the Darwinian idea is how it began.15 Darwin, as biologist would tend to (and did) extrapolate animal husbandry to speciation on one side, and to the single origin looking into the past. This view found all but absolute confirmation more than 100 years later when Nierenberg16 discovered the genetic code and when the universality of this code throughout all of life was noticed. Haley and his comet could not have provided a more powerful endorsement of Newton’s theory than Nierenberg gave to Darwin, yet, in the final analysis, what seemed obvious, was also incorrect.

The genetic code invariance persuaded evolutionists to throw the first shy proponents of polyphyletic models into the dungeons.17,18 The contention that chance would not have provided even for two origins with an identical triplet codon for protein synthesis was then and still is absolutely correct and certainly relevant, but the conclusion reached because of it by nearly everyone was not. Multiple origins were declared impossible whereas chance should have been disqualified as an inappropriate term in this equation (which it is), and this was the error that has dominated thinking for more than 150 years and is still defended with vehemence.

With many liter-size ‘bio-reactors’ the planet would still have looked arid to alien visitors. The Genomic Potential Hypothesis will have all of them make proteins in essentially the same way because it is the only way for making proteins efficiently and repeatedly and to remember forever how it was done. If other routes were possible we would see them today, just like we see differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic genome organization. Versatile as it is, chemistry is not resourceful enough to provide two independent pathways to life.

Does it still seem difficult to see a large number of biogenic pools giving rise to species that could eat each other and, within mixing zones, even breed with each other? I am afraid so, our intuition was raised on randomness in chemistry. The new hypothesis is a bit feisty on this argument, suggesting that the products of a new biogenic period, if started under the same conditions and with the same amount of starting material on an earth-type planet, would have landed squarely on the chaotic attractor of our life, meaning the production of all creatures we see now, though the names may be different. This prediction, I am confident, will be confirmed should we be able to find life on a planet remotely similar to ours simply because chemistry is universal. The chaotic attractor of life is shaped by the structure of baryonic matter which is, by all accounts, the same out to the edge of the universe. Yet, at this time one could throw together all the baryonic matter in reach and wait for an awfully long time without seeing any life emerging from the mixture, not because it does not work, but because reaction conditions are a major ingredient in the chemistry of the origins of life.

Can one be so sure about this invariance concept only because we can never test this prediction? Not really, the Jovian moons are within our reach and Mars is still in contention as a life-supporting rock, so one must consider the idea in principle testable. Life will be the same and everybody who is searching for life elsewhere knows it intuitively, because they are looking with the methods it takes to detect our kind of life. They are all unwitting supporters of the invariance concept of the Genomic Potential Hypothesis.

A clonal model places all the discriminating action at the very bottom of the evolutionary events and that proposal, in turn, leads to the uniformity argument. Major development occurs early on when the chemical system is at maximum plasticity, and that is not only the source of basic uniformity but also the major source of emotional resistance to the new model within the scientific community. The proposal that chemistry worldwide would either give rise to the same mode of life or to no life at all seems an assault on common sense, the same common sense that has been so successfully assaulted by all the pioneers in science early in the past century.

Invariance theory is the name Einstein had perceived for what became known as Relativity. As space condenses, everything slows down for an outside observer. Amazingly and totally against one’s intuition time passage, as defined by the speed of light, remains unchanged and life will speed up or slow down depending upon the density of space, and we would never notice. No doubt it is true but it is a “conceptual truth” that cannot be tested on living creatures because gravity in slow-time regions will crush water-containing structures. Experiments with particle accelerators, however, have shown clear evidence of time dilation. Such a conceptual unity envelope also extends across the biogenesis scene. It is this cosmic concept, frozen in atomic structure, that becomes obvious first in the form of nucleic acids, which lets us be certain that life anywhere will rest on the same chaotic attractor as life on earth.19 While riding the dart needle we witnessed that unity, the differences that are visible only at greater distance are organizational primarily and quantitative secondarily; they depend upon the linear arrangement of the nucleic acids.

Science will progress and it is a somewhat oblique tribute to the religious undertow in the evolution of science today that the major hypothesis of our own development has not been permitted to join the high-flying, intellectual world of our colleagues in physics, astronomy, and cosmology, even though the concepts in biology are as high-flying, sophisticated and, yes stunning, as those of physics and astronomy. Consider, please, the immense number of genetic code words assembled in part randomly (primary strand) and in part by complementarity. At the sight of such a distribution of bits of information Frank Plumpton Ramsey would calculate that nearly every possible structure should be discoverable in this matrix.20 The complexity of a design discoverable in large distributions of points (stars or nucleotides) depends upon the total number of points in a set. With a thousand moles (∼6 × 1026 nucleotides) conservatively estimated to have been on earth during biogenesis Ramsey would grant us every conceivable configuration of life.


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