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Art of the Gaps: What is the origin of life on Earth?

Part of being human is having the drive to question the mysteries of the world around us. That questioning has led us to many answers over the millenia. Some of the biggest gaps in human knowledge have been answered by arbitrary communal consensus. These diverse myths and stories entertained and reinforced social values. Other answers are hard won either through empirical cultural knowledge passed down through generations or, more recently, through the rigors of scientific inquiry. As we’ve grappled with getting to know our world we’ve expressed our quest for understanding through poignant works of art.michelangelocreation_of_adamThis is what I call the Art of the Gaps. How people have represented their conclusions regarding the unknown has varied and developed over time. Science has filled in many gaps in humanity’s knowledge but some of the biggest mysteries still remain. So we continue to make art of the gaps. This is the first of a series of posts for Mad Art Lab that will explore contemporary art work inspired by the big unanswered questions. How did the universe get started? What is consciousness? What is the origin of life? Are we alone in the universe? What happens when we die? What is beauty? These are just a few.

Here Be Dragons
Here Be Dragons

Some questions crop up more in one artistic medium than others. For example, “What is Consciousness?” is most masterfully explored–though yet to be answered–in literature. My field is professional fine art–I apologize in advance that many of the art works I present will be skewed in that direction. I welcome commenters to point out great pieces in other art forms.

Today’s featured question is “What is the origin of life on Earth?”

If medium is the message then ReBioGeneSys as seen in the video above by conceptual artist,  Adam W. Brown, is all about origin-of-life science. At first glance that is laudable and appropriate. The art work is a captivating installation of a chemistry experiment that claims to literally attempt to make and nurture a sort of evolution in the building blocks of life. That’s mighty ambitious for a work of art.

My first impression of the work was how it looks–slick and sciencey. The word fragment “Gene” flashed at me out from the biotechy portmanteau title. Surely the artist doesn’t expect to make genes? That would be silly.  My skeptic sense was starting to tingle with nagging disappointment.

The ReBioGeneSys video and artist statement make extraordinary claims about this piece and his previous origin of life art/science experiments. The artist even implies his experiment could be used to model the origin of life on other planets. However, the nifty glass lab ware looked too flimsy for that. The video and the statement don’t go into the technical details of their experimental methods. Suddenly, I had red flags everywhere that needed settling. Since the piece is a literal organic chemistry experiment my questions were mostly technical. (Dammit, Jim! I’m an artist not a chemist!) I felt I needed to read the scientific paper about this experiment in order to be able to better evaluate the art work. Adam W. Brown has a scientist collaborator for these origin of life science experiment/art installations. I emailed Dr. Root-Bernstein, professor of physiology, to see if the paper had been published or if he could send me something prior to publication. He replied that the paper was delayed pending more analysis.

I was frustrated by this point. I had reservations about the piece but was unqualified to properly judge it without expert advice. I asked fellow MadArtLabber, Dr. Rubidium, if she had any thoughts on whether this is a viable science experiment. She referred me to organic chemists with internet noms de plume, Chemjobber and See Arr Oh, who are enthusiastic science communicators.

I sent emails to both of them with a barrage of questions. They were both very patient and helpful. I heard back from See Arr Oh first. What follows is our Q&A with quotes she cited from the artist included.

JM: “If I understand it correctly this piece is supposed to build more and more complex organic chemicals “evolving” into the–I’m assuming–the building blocks of life since he’s citing the famous Stanley Miller experiment. Is that assessment correct?”

See Arr Oh: “The Miller-Urey experiment, published in 1953 (not 1955), served as both a popular and scientific leap into research of simulated conditions of a prebiotic Earth. Although it was the first, it was certainly not the last – several prominent chemists, biologists, and physicists have taken up the torch. For a skeptical outlook on Origin of Life (OoL) research as a whole, I heartily recommend Origins by Robert Shapiro (1986, Bantam Books).”

Quote from the Artist “This experiment has only been replicated exactly once before (by Hough and Rogers, in 1956), and it yielded the same compounds as Miller’s original.”

See Arr Oh: “Read the results of Miller and similar experiments (there have been more than just one replication; Miller himself re-ran the experiment under various conditions, see: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/03/21/scientists-finish-a-53-year-old-classic-experiment-on-the-origins-of-life/).

Producing molecules that living systems rely upon does not imply you will assemble a complex, self-replicating system anytime soon. The odds are overwhelmingly against. I have more to say on evolution and the experimental set-up, below.”

JM: “As a chemist, what is your opinion on the artist being able to do that with the setup he has? Isn’t there a lot of room for contamination here?”

Quote from the artist “This over-population drove the chemical syntheses in new directions so that we were able to obtain not only amino acids, but sugars, fatty acids and lipids, and even nucleic acid bases and ATP – the entire range of chemical compounds required to build the constituents of a cell!”

See Arr Oh: “This is a very bold claim. If true, it should be in 1) a major publication, such as Cell or Nature, or 2) in a venture round to start a biotech company.

We chemists are a conservative bunch and we tend to “trust, but verify.” The authors claim on their website that they have duplicated the Miller conditions in their Origin of Life: Experiment 1.x, but do not provide documentation on their methods. How was the glassware assembled? What precautions have been taken to minimize contamination from advantageous microorganisms, or even dust? How are they analyzing the formed mixture of compounds? Are they using authentic standards against which to measure?

In their initial video (http://adamwbrown.net/projects-2/origins-of-life-experiment-1/) the artists claim they can

“…explore science that would never be acceptable under the peer-review model of consensus-driven research.”

This seems to miss a logical point of peer review: validation that one’s methods are scientifically sound and that research is conducted in ethical, reproducible ways against proper control experiments.”

Quote from the Artist “ReBioGeneSys is augmented by several features that provide multiple means of chemical production and processes for carrying out non-random selection.”

See Arr Oh: “Claiming one has produced “amino acids…sugars, fatty acids and lipids…nucleic acid bases and ATP” does not imply molecular evolution or even that the compounds present are viable for life. Evolution implies that a selection pressure (Darwin) exists to skew a statistical mixture in a nonrandom direction.”

Please provide the data that demonstrates that this installation can produce the invoked molecules, that they’re viable for the creation of proto-living systems, and that the selection pressures are driving formation of more complex entities over time.”

Quote from the Artist: “…a fully functioning scientific experiment capable of being reconfigured into any real or imaginary world, be it Venus, Titan, our prebiotic Earth or Middle Earth….All known natural conditions such as desiccation/hydration, freeze-thaw and day-night cycles, exposure to UV light, electrical energy, and heat are incorporated into one apparatus. Any possible environment can be simulated or invented”

See Arr Oh: “This is so overstated it’s nearly laughable. Reproduction of extraterrestrial atmospheres? How would this experiment simulate environmental turbulence, gamma radiation, extremes in gravity or pressure? For the “all known natural conditions,” does this preclude extreme temperatures and pressures such as those found at deep-sea vents? Mineral deposits? Solid/liquid interfaces? The list continues.”

JM: “What do you think of this piece as a work of science art?”

See Arr Oh: “For me, I look at this less as an artwork, and more as a piece of scientific outreach. He’s trying to bring an exciting experiment out of its metaphorical mothballs to interest newcomers in Origin of Life (OoL) research. He may experience a paradox: encouraging artists to take up chemistry, not to have chemists consider philosophical implications of their work (which they ruminate on at length when submitting grant proposals, btw…)”

See Arr Oh confirmed my unease about this piece as a science experiment. Unfortunately, if an artist chooses to use a science experiment as their medium they need to be prepared for the steely eye of scientific scrutiny. Our first expert kindly informs us the science does not pass muster. Thanks to See Arr Oh’s input, I’m looking at it as “less of an artwork” too.

Our next professional organic chemist to help review ReBioGeneSys is Chemjobber.

JM: “The artist has a science collaborator, Dr. Root Bernstein. The artist said in his statement that they would be submitting a paper for publication on this piece in 2015. I asked Dr. Root -Bernstein by e-mail if that paper was available yet and he says it’s been delayed because they needed to do more analysis. I’m disappointed because that paper would have answered a lot of my questions. What are the chances that this passes review to get published in an organic chemistry or other type of journal?”

Chemjobber: “I have a somewhat difficult time imagining this passing muster in an organic chemistry journal, in the sense that it’s not clear as to if the experiment is actually being recorded or routinely sampled to see what is developing. Also, it is unclear to me how novel this work is, and it’s a basic requirement of journal quality that what you’re doing has never been done before. (Often “never” is a quite narrow “never”, but still novel.)”

JM: “The artist seems to be doing an iterative version of the famous Stanley Miller experiment taking the products from the process from one step to the next, adding new ?somethings? in order to get the organic chemistry to evolve or perhaps become more complex. Is that a correct read? The best part about this piece (despite the name) is that the artist doesn’t claim to be trying to make life–just the building blocks.”

Chemjobber:  “Yes, I agree with your read on what the project is claiming to do.”

JM: “Based on what is shown in the video and photos on Adam Brown’s site is the chemistry experiment setup appropriate for such an experiment? Is this likely to be clean or rife with contaminants? Shouldn’t a Stanley Miller experiment be conducted in a clean room without rubber or plastic kit to ensure against contamination?”

Chemjobber: “I suspect the original Miller-Urey experiments were carried out in a laboratory of typical levels of cleanliness (i.e. ranging from filthy to quite clean), but I doubt you’d need a clean room. That said, it appears from my reading that Miller added some mercuric chloride as a biocide (to kill any bacteria around), and so perhaps in a perfect world, OoL chemistry needs to be performed in a completely sterile environment.”

JM: “In your opinion, if it is play science does it still have artistic merit?”

Chemjobber: “My approach to “art” is pretty pure (NB I am not a strong art lover, but I do like to take my kids to the art museum every now and again.) With that in mind, I feel the best art is the art that is true to its subject, so I would expect that an actual working setup would have far more artistic merit.”

Chemjobber goes on to add the following points.

“A. According to accounts that I have read, Miller found that his experiments turned pink almost immediately. I note that the Brown/Root-Berstein flasks all appear colorless.
B. The narrator in the Vimeo piece claims that all basic building blocks have been formed (i.e. amino acids, sugars, nucleotides, lipids). Before I believe that, I would like actual independent analysis by a laboratory (or evidence of such analyses.) It just doesn’t pass the smell test, maybe I’m wrong.
C. Assuming that Dr. Root-Bernstein is the person in this Wikipedia entry, it appears to me that he has a checkered scientific past, and that makes me doubt his science a little bit more. That said, all scientific claims deserve scrutiny, not just those that are done by people who support disproven hypotheses in the past.”

That last one is an interesting point. Dr. Root-Bernstein didn’t respond to my followup email. To be fair, I was cranky about the piece and had a glass of wine in me when I wrote back with some aggressive questions. I may have sounded like an arrogant creationist. I’m not sure. (probably) I am going to give Dr. Root-Bernstein the
benefit of the doubt because I don’t know how deeply involved he is in this project. I also don’t know if the artist followed his counsel. I also don’t know whether the artist is appealing to scientific authority. (He didn’t respond to my email.) A scientific paper on these projects would be really helpful.

Chemjobber referred me to Jeffrey L. Bada, an enthusiastic origin of life researcher. Stanley Miller was his advisor! Here’s what he had to say:

“I am not sure what to make of this.  I consulted with a couple of my other colleagues in the origin of life field and we all agree.  The video is aesthetically pleasing but the words do not convey a meaningful message, and there is no real, meaningful science depicted.  An earlier version was set up in San Diego, and amino acids were claimed to be produced and detected, but the distribution looked like contamination to me.  I feel it is misleading to the public if the intent is to portray a realistic possible pathway for how life might have arose on Earth.  The video does not do this, but the glassware setup is impressive.

Sorry not to be more positive about this.”

That’s okay. I’ll get over it. The glassware *is* impressive.

All right then. We have a well-equipped, well-promoted(video/statement), but overreaching science experiment/art installation. Still I ask myself, “But even as a piece of deluded science does it have any artistic merit?” My inner monologue has just paraded past me a couple of ways this might have saved face. Unfortunately, I keep coming back to the word lame. It simply has no life. Adam W. Brown is really good at designing and putting together sweet custom lab ware. He also appears to want to explore the big questions of science. I have hope that artistically he’ll present us with something truly meaningful in the future.

By contrast I proffer a similar piece of origin of life art from the Gap. Abiogenesis of Electrical Acari, by Antony Hall beats/replicates a dead horse with great wit, humility, and plenty of artistic merit.

from antonyhall.wordpress.com

From Hall’s notebook/website:
“electrocrystallisation experiment started 2009. Recreation of a experiment by Andrew Crosse in the 1830s. Using solar power rather than Layden cells, a piece of Pumice is soaked in a solution while being continually charged with an electrical current. He observed life forms emerging from the stone. This experiment attempts to recreate the conditions of the experiment and create a habitable environment for the so called Electrical Acari.”

This is kind of sweet because the artist knows this is a famously futile experiment. Yet he is recreating and documenting the folly anew. Noting his modern modifications, he is attempting to replicate an experiment that was infamously falsified as evidence of abiogenesis with great bemusement and shame 180 or so years ago.  At any rate Antony Hall’s consolation prize might be some rad old-timey electrocrystallisation.

If you have a favorite origin-of-life related artwork of any media tell me about it in the comments!

I encourage you to follow Chemjobber @chemjobber and See Arr Oh @seearroh on Twitter. They’re awesome!




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