Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Life Began As Clay Crystals

There is a fine article on BBC Earth by Martha Henriques on the work of chemist Graham Cairns-Smith and his theory that life may have begun as clay crystals. Cairns-Smith reasoned that clay minerals are made up of sheets of atoms bonded in a regular lattice pattern that is stacked in layers.  Pieces of this latticework break off, forming offspring crystals often with minor dislocations to the latticework. These offspring crystals grow ..break off with more minor changes... grow.. and so on. Organic molecules like the precursors of DNA might have used such a "replicating entity" as a scaffolding to build an organic replicating system.

His idea stood at the intersection of geology, chemistry and biology and his wife Dorothy recalls the reaction he got from his peers:

"He could never get funding," Dorothy says. A major stumbling block to securing research grants was that his work straddled too many different disciplines.

One time we went to California, and Graham gave lectures to the Menlo Park Geology Survey," says Dorothy. "They all said, well, your geology's fine but I don't think your chemistry's right. Then he gave a lecture to NASA on the chemistry side and they said, well, your chemistry's fine but I'm not sure about your biology. And then he lectured to Berkeley and they said, well, your biology's fine but I'm not sure about your geology".

Nowadays such grand problems are tackled by multi-disciplinary teams of sub sub specialists. If a chemist is asked to talk on the geology aspects,  he just forwards the email of his teammate.


  1. Wonderful Suvrat!Sometimes feel its about levels of consciousness...something like the spectrum of light...part of which is visible to us as our eyes are receptive of them

    1. thanks Urmila - well, its a topic that lends itself to philosophical musings.. :)