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For almost twenty years, one of the Brocks’ two new bacteria, Thermophilus aquaticus, remained a laboratory curiosity until a scientist in California named Kary B. Mullis realized that heat-resistant enzymes within it could be used to create a bit of chemical wizardry known as a polymerase chain reaction, which allows scientists to generate lots of DNA from very small amounts—as little as a single molecule in ideal conditions. It’s a kind of genetic photocopying, and it became the basis for all subsequent genetic science, from academic studies to police forensic work. It won Mullis the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993.
Chemical reactions of the sort associated with life are actually something of a commonplace. It may be beyond us to cook them up in a lab, à la Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, but the universe does it readily enough. Lots of molecules in nature get together to form long chains called polymers. Sugars constantly assemble to form starches. Crystals can do a number of lifelike things—replicate, respond to environmental stimuli, take on a patterned complexity. They’ve never achieved life itself, of course, but they demonstrate repeatedly that complexity is a natural, spontaneous, entirely commonplace event. There may or may not be a great deal of life in the universe at large, but there is no shortage of ordered self-assembly, in everything from the transfixing symmetry of snowflakes to the comely rings of Saturn.
The bottom line is that life is amazing and gratifying, perhaps even miraculous, but hardly impossible—as we repeatedly attest with our own modest existences. To be sure, many of the details of life’s beginnings remain pretty imponderable. Every scenario you have ever read concerning the conditions necessary for life involves water—from the “warm little pond” where Darwin supposed life began to the bubbling sea vents that are now the most popular candidates for life’s beginnings—but all this overlooks the fact that to turn monomers into polymers (which is to say, to begin to create proteins) involves what is known to biology as “dehydration linkages.” As one leading biology text puts it, with perhaps just a tiny hint of discomfort, “Researchers agree that such reactions would not have been energetically favorable in the primitive sea, or indeed in any aqueous medium, because of the mass action law.” It is a little like putting sugar in a glass of water and having it become a cube. It shouldn’t happen, but somehow in nature it does. The actual chemistry of all this is a little arcane for our purposes here, but it is enough to know that if you make monomers wet they don’t turn into polymers—except when creating life on Earth. How and why it happens then and not otherwise is one of biology’s great unanswered questions.
excerpts from A Brief History of Nearly Everything
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