Sunday, April 3, 2011

Probability Zero

The first two decades of my career were spent trying to show how life began by extrapolating back to what the earth was like 3.6 billion years ago. You can imagine the countless days in the lab, weeks writing grants to convince people with money that my work was relevant, hours and hours lecturing to students who didn't want to be taking Biophysical Chemistry, meetings, talks, posters, awkward silences at parties when people asked what I did, and the occasional call to repentance from an ill-informed friend at church. Building on the work of a few dozen labs over the course of about a century, we had even managed to make simple cells that could grow and reproduce for a few days before the system was crashed by real bacteria or by a nutrient imbalance.

Then the physicists developed what I like to call the space-time sampler. They have some unpronounceable acronym for it that stands for what it really does and how it really works, but for me space-time sampler is a good approximation. It took another two decades and twelve tries through NASA, the NSF, and a collaborative international granting agency to get my last grant funded. The first year was spent bringing back (or rather, forward) samples of the Earth from 3.6-4 billion years ago. We learned all sorts of things about the conditions of the atmosphere, the state of the oceans, and innumerable other details, but we didn't bring back anything like life. Then we found our first sample rich in biological molecules.

It wasn't just rich, it was chock full. The physicists checked the dates to make sure they hadn't missed by a few million years while we made our first tests. Everything was as many before us had predicted. There were amino acids, nucleic acids, fatty acids, sugars, and all the other molecules you get when you put energy into the right chemical mixture. Those were the last tests that made any sense. The carbohydrates were far too complex. We identified cellulose and amylose as if there were already plants around. The fatty acids were distributed like modern eukaryotic cells. The nucleic acids were polymerized into large proteins that we identified as identical to many modern proteins, with surprising amounts of lignin and gluten. None of the modern laboratory simulations had ever produced licopene, but our sample looked like it had an entire tomato blended in it.

The space-time sampling methods were reviewed again and again, and another sample was brought forward by a group in China with the same results. We were down to our final vial stored in our -80 °C freezer, but we had run every test we could think of and knew every molecule in the mix.

I'm not sure what brought me to tonight's epiphany. A combination of depression—my wife had died three years before—tiredness from lack of sleep and old age—I had just turned 71 a month earlier—and terrible frustration that I had come so close to my life's dream but would soon be retiring without understanding the answers to my biggest questions. I was hungry and mad. I was ready to break something, which was surprising given my generally mild reaction to setbacks. I thought it might as well be me that got broken. I knew Chemists historically had the shortest life expectancy among research scientists for a reason, but I wasn't reasoning well at the moment. I found my bowl and spoon from the office, and took the last sample to the microwave. Yes, I was going to eat it. I thought of the irony of the prehistoric elixir of life becoming my last meal, but I couldn't really take it seriously. Everything in it was so modern, so tame, so well known, so innocuous, so incomprehensible.

I should have guessed something from the smell as I opened the microwave, but I was preoccupied with my own misery and self-destructive thoughts. That all changed when I took a bite. I sat back stunned. Then I started to laugh. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I started to cough, and tears came to my eyes. I had the answer, but no one would believe it. I would be dismissed as an obsessed crackpot who couldn't admit his own mistakes. They would call it a hoax, but I could retire happy. I knew the answer. The primordial soup was minestrone.