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Al Stahler: Living chemistry

We are – all of us – master chemists. By us, I mean you, me, our pets, the bacteria turning cabbage into sauerkraut … and the cabbage, too … we are all master chemists.

Molecules are clumps of atoms, glued together. H20 is a water molecule, two atoms of hydrogen glued to an atom of oxygen. Doing chemistry, we bring atoms and molecules close together, so they will react – will re-arrange their atoms, taking molecules apart, making new molecules, sometimes winning energy from the re-arrangement.

We do these chemical reactions, in nearly every cell in our body, hundreds, thousands of times a second.

Rocks and air and water also do chemistry, but not the complex sort of chemistry we do. Rocks and air and water play with small molecules, composed of only a few atoms. The molecules that you, I and the cabbage deal with are composed of dozens … hundreds … thousands of atoms.

And the molecules of life are not just large. Our molecules can only do their job – can keep us alive – only if they’ve got the right shape. Our bodies are jig-saw puzzles … bazillions of jig-saw puzzles … that we put together, take apart. Molecules are puzzle-pieces, and they’ve got to fit together just right – exactly right – for our bodies to work right.

Life is more complex – way more complex – than rocks and air and water.

And yet … and yet … somehow … four billion years ago … molecules that had come from rocks … and air … and water … somehow these simple molecules joined together … grew larger … grew more complex … and … somehow … came alive.

For those dead molecules to join up, four billion years ago, in just the right way, in just the right shape … something had to hold them together … and hold them in just the right shape.

Today, machines inside our bodies – enzymes – bring molecules together, hold them in place, mold them into the right shape. One of the many mysteries of biology is “What held small, dead molecules together in the right way, in the right shape, to allow life to evolve?”

Snowflakes and ice cubes are both solid water. But ice cubes are drab, while snowflakes are beautiful. Snowflakes are individual crystals. And within those icy crystals – bestowing their delicate beauty – are nooks, and crannies.

We’re still searching for evidence, but it’s a good bet, that the first life, four billion years ago, was born – beneath the sea, over millions of years – in the nooks and crannies of crystals … not crystals of ice, but mineral crystals, in rock, whose nooks and crannies lent their shape to the first molecules of life.

If it happened here, could it happen elsewhere?

If you’ve got a good view to the east, and you enjoy getting up before dawn, look to the east for planet Jupiter, shining brightly. Jupiter has dozens of moons, several almost the size of planets. One of Jupiter’s large moons has an ocean, covered with ice. Could there be something alive, beneath that ice?

Close by Jupiter, in the sky … not nearly so bright, but distinctly orange … is planet Mars. We’ve got a rover on Mars, collecting rocks, which will one day be returned to Earth, to be searched for fossil molecules of life.

Look up at the stars. Recent research tells us that most of those stars have planets. Could any of those planets be home to something alive?

Local astronomers will set up scopes for a star party, where the old Downieville highway meets SR49, next Saturday night, 9 p.m. Its free – bring the kids, and – no matter how warm the day – bring a sweater.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors, in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and may be reached at a.a.stahler11@gmail.com

Warm springs in the Atlantic build structures with microscopic nooks and crannies.
Photo courtesy UW/WHOI

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