Re: Life in the Lab--Koichiro Matsuno responds
Sun, 16 May 1999 02:12:19 EDT

In a message dated 5/14/99 4:44:58 PM Mountain Daylight Time, writes:

> I received a very interesting reply from Koichiro today
> regarding the question of whether Fox's protocells are
> alive. He kindly gave me permission to quote his reply
> to the group. Here it is:

[snip reply]

I wrote to Duane Rohlfing (another author on that paper) and got much the
same reply. It's really not surprising that they have some reservations
concerning Fox's claim, because while they occasionally colaborated with him,
they pretty much maintained independent research programs. Even so, they
confirmed much of what Fox himself had discovered about proteinoid
microspheres and they each added significant contributions to the overall

I agree with them (and with Fox and several of the other authors and
Lehninger who have all made similar statements) that the significant lesson
concerning protocells is not that life has been created in the lab, but that
molecular cellular mechanisms and structures can be derived abiotically,
despite their seeming complexity. It's as I said in an earlier thread:
abiogenesis is not the origin of life but of the molecular structures and
mechanisms that make cells -- and life -- possible. However, because the
creationists on this listserv, as well as some evolutionists, insist that
abiogenesis must be about the origin of life (despite their refusal to define
just what life is), I found it easier to go along with them rather than
continue to fight them. As such, when some people stated that the origin of
life by naturalistic means was impossible, I stated that not only was it
possible, it had been reproduced in the lab. And the rest, as they say, is

In any event, it doesn't matter whether there is a consensus among biologists
that life has been created in the lab (something I am now ready to concede
may not be true), or that there are scientists who might deny that Fox's
protocells are alive (something I have never denied), or even that Fox was
thought to be a charlatan by some of his colleagues (a claim Art apparently
refuses to defend). What actually matters is whether Fox's protocells are a
plausible model for the evolutionary precursor of the modern cell. Every one
of those co-authors, including Koichiro and Rohfling accept that that
assertion is true, based in part on their own research as well as the
research of others. And there are those researchers who would reject
proteinoid microspheres, but who base their own theories on the very
principles Fox pioneered: a cells-first approach based on the selective
self-assembly of micro- and macromolecules to form structures that possess
the information and catalytic capacity to capture energy and use it to
replicate more macromolecules so as to produce copies of themselves. The
only difference between their theories and Fox's is that Fox's have alot of
experimental support, whereas theirs has virtually none.

> IMHO, this is a brilliant response and reaffirms the positive
> impression that I had of Koichiro from my earlier contact
> with him. Note the straightforward application of what we here
> would call "methodological naturalism".
> So, it seems I'll have to eat my words regarding my last post.
> Not the first time :). I had taken the following sentence from
> the abstract I gave as indicating that the authors of that
> paper thought that the protocells were alive:
> #"The protocells have characteristics of life defined by Webster's
> #Dictionary: metabolism, growth, reproduction and response to
> #stimuli in the environment."

It is entirely possible that Fox wrote the paper and the other researchers
were included as co-authors simply because their research supported the
conclusions he presents in the paper. However, some of the co-authors do
accept as valid Fox's claim that his protocells are alive, especially those
who worked most closely with him. I would imagine that Klaus Dose is one of
them, since the book he co-wrote with Fox makes a strong claim that
proteinoid microspheres are alive.

It should also be pointed out that, despite rhetoric concerning the
metaphysical nature of life, Fox's claim makes sense. From a practical
biological aspect, living organisms display certain properties, the most
important being cellularity, metabolism, growth and reproduction, and the use
of coded molecules to store information concerning structure-based
functionality. While there are nonliving systems that can mimic one or two
of these properties, by convention any system that possesses all of these
properties is alive. Since proteinoid microsphere protocells possess all
these properties, should they not be considered alive, even if they do not
resemble a modern cell?

> After reading Koichiro's response I believe I see how to interpret
> this sentence. Before guessing and having to eat my words again :),
> I plan to reply to Koichiro this afternoon and ask him about
> this particular abstract. I had not mentioned it in my first
> letter to him.

I wouldn't hazard to guess what Brian's interpretation would be, and it will
be interesting to hear what Koichiro has to say, but I suspect that the
"interpretation" is that protocells act as models, and so should have the
characteristics of the structures they model. Even so, if they have the
characteristics of life, should they not in fact be considered alive? After
all, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it
not a duck?

Kevin L. O'Brien