Re: Life in the Lab - Fox and the Nobel Prize

Arthur V. Chadwick (
Thu, 13 May 1999 13:04:20 -0700

At 11:09 AM 5/13/99 -0400, Jack wrote:
>Greetings all:
>The recent discussion on the 'Origin of Life' has come just as I am in
>the early stages of preparing materials on the topic for the ASA web
>site. I would be interested in receiving
>references on the subject that you have found valuable (not newspaper
>stuff or institutional puffs). What university president would not
>nominate someone for a prize if he thought the bucks and prestige would
>end up in his institution? Have there been any serious reviews of the
>material in the last decade? I know, look it up Jack, but I do not have
>easy access to abstracts that I had before retiring to the good life.
>So.....any help would be appreciated.

Hi, Jack.

Since the conversation seems to be centered around Sidney Fox and his work,
I will say a bit about him from first hand experience. He was one of my
professors at University of Miami. I learned from Sidney Fox himself how to
make his proteinoids and microspheres. I have also discussed with him at
length the claims he had made in the 1960's to have created life. He would
not repeat those claims in my presence (he knew me well enough to know what
I believed). He was able to make such claims in an audience of believers,
but not in the presence of an antagonist. It was in this context that I
asked him about the origin of the ribosome, and he told me a fanciful story
about some researcher in France who had discovered a bacterium that
assembled proteins right off the DNA without the aid of a ribosome, a claim
that has not yet reached scientific circles. He never claimed to have
created life when he was on campus (and of course, I think with good
reason) or in the classroom, nor could he have to an audience of
biochemists and molecular biologists. Among my peers, he was considered
not to be doing acceptable science, although there was not general
disrespect among students. However, our mentors had nothing good to say
about his science. Again, it was not personal. He was a nice enough
person. Two good friends of mine did their Ph.D. work under him. Neither
of them believed he had "created life" by a long shot. One of them
switched to another advisor because he did not believe what he had been
doing in his lab was science.

In spite of the many claims that we have heard that he had created
life...or even a "protocell", whatever that is, there is nothing in his
work to suggest this was the case. All of the features he (and others)
have claimed for his microspheres are features explanable in terms of
non-living physical and chemical interactions in a system going to
equilibrium. To trivialize life in this context by saying that such
systems are "living" does not make sense. No living system resembles Fox's
proteinoids in any way. All living systems are far from equilibrium, and
remain there until they are no longer living. All known living systems are
information rich, and are capable of passing that information on to progeny
in an organized way. To claim that Fox's proteinoid microspheres are alive
is, in short, not to understand what life is. Sidney Fox either did not
understand what life is, or made such claims in his own self-interest. As
Moorad has stated repeatedly, if his claim was considered credible by the
scientific community, Fox would have won the Nobel Prize (although, the
prize is generally awarded for major breakthroughs involving new insights).

I will be away until the 28th, so will not be able to respond further until
after that. Perhaps by then the thread itself will be dead, and we will
have moved on to other things.