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NYU Chemist Supports New Theory For Origin Of Life

New York University

New York University chemistry professor Robert Shapiro has published a new book and paper that challenge existing assumptions about life on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe. In Planetary Dreams, Shapiro raises the issue of whether that laws of nature might favor the generation of life throughout the Universe. Furthermore, Shapiro suggests that the hypothesis that life is unique to Earth could prove to be just as implausible as theories of Divine Creation.

These arguments are presented in Shapiro's article, "Prebiotic cytosine synthesis: A critical analysis and implications for the origin of life,"which appeared in the April 13th Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 96, Issue 8, 4396-4401). Shapiro also lays out his argument in a new book entitled PLANETARY DREAMS, which was published by John Wiley & Sons in April.

In the book and paper, Shapiro argues that standard origin-of-life theories are badly flawed. Such theories are dependent on a miraculous event: the once-in-a-universe spontaneous generation of RNA, DNA or some related gene from lifeless matter.

Shapiro marshals an array of data to argue that the simplest kind of cellular life may arise as a predictable result of organic chemistry and the physics of self-organizing systems whenever planets exist with the right constituents and conditions: a liquid or dense gas medium (not necessarily water), a suitable energy source, and a system of matter capable of using the energy to organize itself. He calls this hypothesis the Life Principle. Furthermore, he argues that no predictable directions exist for life's later development from these basic beginnings.

In addition, Shapiro argues that humankind's search for life beyond Earth should continue to focus on those nearby worlds -- Mars, Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Titan -- where the conditions appear to support the development of life.

He writes, "The debate over extraterrestrial life has been carried out with a great deal of passion, but with little progress, for centuries. Only in the last decades have we gained the ability to move it forward by collecting data at close range. We can send robots to inspect likely worlds such as Mars, Europa and Titan, and return photographs, information and samples, or, if we choose, we can go there ourselves and look around. We may find existing life, remnants of extinct life, or chemical systems evolving in the direction of life. Alternatively, we may encounter monotonous wastelands, lacking any sign that a process relevant to life has taken place there. The results will help decide which of two very different views of the Universe is more nearly correct."

Robert Shapiro is a professor of chemistry at New York University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed books Life Beyond Earth, Origins, and The Human Blueprint. A specialist in the chemistry of DNA and RNA, Shapiro has published over 90 articles in research journals.


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