The science behind the comic
Something in the Water
Chapter 9 ▾
In this chapter the professor and the Masai Daniel have a conversation about what we discussed in the previous chapter. We are able to synthetize the molecular bricks of life but we don't know how to build the house, how to create life. Daniel makes the observation that the Masai houses are not made with bricks. Indeed, it is worth asking whether everything alive has to be based on the molecules of the life we know. In principle, the answer is no. There is no reason to ensure that there would be no other physical and chemical routes towards the self-organization of matter in structures capable of self-sustaining, optimizing survival and the power to control the surrounded inanimate world. Investigating the existence of these worlds is a formidable challenge, an exclusive task for special scientists.
The chapter also takes the opportunity to draw attention to our destiny as humans. Promethea and Euclides flew in a rocket from a planet called Polyhedra in which a large state organization has taken control of the planet and turned its inhabitants into identical pieces of a gear, of a machine without a soul. That Big Brother watches everything, keeps a vigilance known and consented by citizens who are no longer individuals, but numbers without personality or intimacy, as in the famous novel "We" a dystopia of the Russian writer Yevgueni Zamiatin, to whom this chapter is intended to honor. In fact, in this chapter we learn that Promethea and Euclid are here because they have been expelled or have escaped from that soulless world. They have traveled to our planet to warn their inhabitants of the danger they face if they become blind with the development of such a powerful technology that prevents them from controlling their own future. Or more precisely leaving the power in the hands of a Great Brother, of a omnipotent political or economic structure that decides for all us .Promethea were fighting against that dictatorship in Polyhedra, and must escape.
The danger of our planet heading towards that post-human, emotion-free world dominated by faith in technological progress is real. Since the early twentieth century there is a scientific and artistic movement that commits for a future in which men and women will cease to be the actors of life, will have no emotions, no empathy. A world where cyborgs, robots and androids will progressively replace humans, a “Blade Runner” landscape, in which the order of nature, and nature itself will disappear.
Another contribution of the Prometheus project is to have revealed that in the origin of this proposal there is an aesthetic load centered on crystal as a canon of beauty and geometric abstraction, as a tool for representing and understanding our world. We have published these ideas in Spanish, Italian and French in an article entitled "Crystal and the rose: a rivalry of symmetries." An extended English edition is forthcoming.
Chapter 8 ▾
During our field trips I like to explain local people what we are looking for in their countries and why. I do it of course with my colleagues at the Universities, and Research Institutions from these countries. But I like also to deliver popular lectures to general people and to young students in Schools and High Schools. When possible, I also like to deliver popular lectures for high school students and teachers on basic aspect of crystallization and its application to everyday life. I can tell you that the most difficult lecture I faced in my life was the one to the Masai students in Magadi secondary school. The following video shows some teaching experience in Kenya.
In this chapter we explain the concept of crystal, basically that crystals is ordered matter. Because of this order there is a fundamental difference between crystals and life. The symmetry of crystals is the symmetry of the straight line, of the flat faces, of the polyhedral. This is why the name of the planet from which Euclides and Promethea are coming: Polyhedra is a planet where the development of technology, robotics, and artificial intelligence, has defeated life. Unlike crystals, life shows a different kind of order, closer to the amorphous disordered matter. The experiment that Huang is performing is a well-known phenomenon known as chemical gardens. These are osmotic driven structures that show life-like behavior and that were once in the early days of 20th century to be a form of inorganic life. This is a video of the experiment.
Chapter 7 ▾
How life originates is probably the most inscrutable scientific problem. We have advanced very much in the demonstration that most of the molecular breaks of life can be formed from the scratch, i.e. from rocks-water interactions. Amino acids, nucleobases, sugars, lipids, etc…, all them can be easily obtained. One of the contributions of the project Prometheus is to show that they can be made within an chemical environment that is geochemical environment, namely the alkaline waters we are exploring and sampling in our field trips.
In this experiment performed by Maritza Perez-Valverde (now at the Benemérita Universidad de Puebla, Mexico) it can be observed the formation of mineral membranous vesicles. It is an osmotic driven phenomenon. We have shown in Prometheus (in collaboration with Prof. Ernesto di Mauro and the team of Dr. Raffaele Saladino at the University of Viterbo) that these membranous strictures are able to catalyze the condensation of the single carbon molecules formamide to form RNA nucleobases, nucleobase derivatives (Hypoxantine, 8-aza-Adenine), different amino acids (G+A+FG), and sugars.
But, we are still very far from knowing how these molecules self-polymerize to form proteins and nucleic acids, the actual macromolecules that characterize the life that we know. And this is a big jump. Therefore, it is understandable that the professor dreams Promethea to tell him how that happens. He, as other colleagues, guesses that crystals played a key role in the self-organization of life, but nobody knows what was that role, exactly.
In addition to the origin of life, another hard problem of today science is the detection of the earliest remnants of life in the planet, of the earliest fossils. Paleontologists are mostly searching in the oldest sedimentary rocks, i.e. the rocks formed from water because they have the highest possibility to preserve living organisms. Many structures that look life-like has been found in these rocks, as old as 3.5 billions years old, but their interpretation is a formidable problem. Mostly because these old rocks underwent after their formation huge pressure and high temperature that has modified their organic signal. Also, because during their geological history they were impregnated by fluids that may have formed these life-like structures. Beside this, there are purely inorganic processes that are able to create microstructures that mimic the shape of primitive living organisms. These are called biomorphs after the structures that we are studying in the Prometheus project, called silica-carbonate biomorphs.
Chapter 5 and 6 ▾
An interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary project like ERC-Prometheus requires the contribution of scientists with different expertise and knowledge. I have enjoyed the collaboration of a number of excellent scientists, technicians, and students
The character of Huan is mostly based is the personality of my former PhD student Dr. Gan Zhang, (in the picture) now at the Weizman Institute in Israel, but also in other Master and PhD students of the project, namely Melese Getenet, Manolis Giampouras, and Leonardo Tamborino.
Paula is a character based in the technician Francisca (Paqui) Espinosa, who is a key person in our fieldtrips, from the organization and logistic, instrument maintenance, field measurement and sample collection and storage, and Electra Kotopoulou, an excellent and dedicated scientist who perform a geochemical study of Dallol and the synthesis and high resolution characterization of metal silicate membranes, made with natural and model solutions.
Other colleagues in the team are the field geologist Dr. Fernando Palero (seat in the center with beard), Javier Trueba, photographer and filmmaker (at the left of Palero), the isotopic geochemist Dr. Antonio Delgado (standing to the left next to Gan Zhang), Patricia Gitari (seat at the right), the Kenyan student Tara Barwa (long-haired brunette sitting on the right of Patricia), the Masai Lukas, the drivers (standing at the left of Paqui and the right of Lukas). The two girls with white coatees are waiters of the Magadi Camp.
In addition to the people that travel to the field, the contribution of those who stay in the lab working with the experiments, the analytical techniques, calculations, computer simulations, and is crucial to Prometheus. Let me introduce them:
Marco Montalti and the PhD student Jeannette Manzi, from University of Bolognia, are studying the change of pH at microscale, a contribution that was essential to demonstrate experimentally the existence of a self-organized oscillatory behavior during the growth of biomorphs.
Dr. Joti Rouillard, a PhD student of Dr. Mark van Zuilen, at the Institute de Physique du Globe de Paris, studied biomorphs from a point of view of micropaleontology and Precambrian geochemistry. Mark is the PI of another ERC project call TRACE, devoted to primitive life detection. We have established a strong collaboration creating an actual synergy.
At the Professor Helmut Colfen laboratory in Konstanz University, Julian Opel (in the picture), Matthias Kellermeier (now at BASF) and Helmut Coelfen, have explored silica biomorphs and silica gardens from a materials science point of view. Julian has converted biomorphs into fascinating advanced materials.
Emmanuel Giampuras and Melese Getenet are excellent PhD students exploring serpentinization waters in Oman and Malaga, and the springs and lakes of Kenya respectively.
Dr. Fermín Otálora (in the picture at the left) is always in the lab performing computer simulations and crystallographic studies. But this year he joined us for the first time in the field trip to Dallol.
Graduate students Mathieu Vander Donkt (Université Catholique de Louvaine, Belgium), Ramon Zimmermans (University of Konstanz), and Jelena Mitric (University of Belgrade, Serbia) worked for several months in Prometheus learning and exploring the synthesis of self-organised structures of different types of carbonates.
Our technician at the Laboratorio de Estudios Cristalográficos in Granada, Dr. Cristobal Verdugo (X-ray diffraction), Raquel Fernandez (analytical techniques), and Dr. Luis Gonzalez-Ramirez, (crystallization) support in many ways the research work.
Isabel Guerra and Alicia Ruiz are our scanning electron microscopists at the CIC of the University of Granada, while Miguel Lopez Haro, Susana Trasobares, and Juan José Calvino from the University of Cadiz are helping with Transmission Electron Microscopy studies.
Silbia Lacalle is an outreach journalist and painter who joined the fieldtrip to Dallol to study the color with the expert Prof. Enrique Perez. Both of them belongs to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (CSIC).
Last but not least, a large project like ERC-Prometheus requires a lot of administrative work. Having a good project manager makes many things faster and even possible. This was the work of Dr. Alfonso García-Caballero, who wisely manage all the logistic and administrative aspects of the project.
Chapter 4 ▾
Crystals are solid made by the repetition in space of atoms or clusters of atoms (molecules). This repetition is periodic, i.e. the atom or the cluster in a given position repeat at fixed distances one each other, like in the picture below showing the structure of gypsum, made of calcium atoms (green) sulfate SO4 groups (yellow S, and red O), and two moleucles of water H2O, (white H and red O). Because of this translational symmetry the external shape of the crystals are made by crystal planes (in blue) and the general, classical view of a crystals is a polyhedron like in the right figure.
Therefore when you crystallize a substance from a solution a from a melt you obtain faceted polyhedrons, you obtain what has been the classical view of crystals. For instance, the figure below show typical crystals made of proteins:
When I discover the biomorphs, they look not at all like crystals. They look like this:
Very biological, isn’t? I wondered the first time I saw them, and actually many colleagues cannot believe at the time that these structures were purely inorganic and insisted that there should be a biological contamination of my experiments. There was not. It took time to convince other colleagues that these polycrystalline microstructures are a synthetic novel type of material that share with life complexity, morphology, hierarchy and self-organization yet it is remarkably simple in chemical terms. The synthesis requires only a source of carbonate ions (e.g. atmospheric CO2), strong alkaline aqueous solutions, silica and alkaline-earth cations (Ba and Sr, Ca) at room temperature. Under these alkaline conditions, the precipitation of alkaline-earth carbonates (witherite, strontianite or calcite/aragonite) coupled with silica yields crystal aggregates made of thousands of nanocrystals exhibiting self-assembled non-crystallographic morphologies (J.M. García-Ruiz. Geology 26 (1998) 843-846). These morphologies are highly reminiscent of the shape of primitive organisms, but the precipitate are clearly inorganic in origin and form without involvement of biological compounds or living organisms (J.M. García-Ruiz, et al., Science 302 (2003) 1194-1197). These crystal aggregates share with life complexity, morphology, hierarchy and self-organization, and therefore I named then “silica biomorphs”. We are studying un Prometheus the morphological behavior and textural arrangement of these complex self-organized crystal aggregates as a function of the concentration silica and silicate species in the system, supersaturation value of the carbonate phase, pH and temperature. The study involves also a systematic characterization analysis including optical video microscopy, scanning and transmission electron microscopy, X-ray and electron diffraction and several spectroscopic techniques. And more than that, we are also looking if they may form under natural conditions.
Chapter 3 ▾
Field work in remote places of a foreign country is not easy at all. First thing you have to do is seeking for permission from the authorities to perform scientific research in the country. This is very important because any discovery, particularly those with plausible economic or ecological impact, should be shared with the local people. Kenyan authorities take seriously this and after arriving to Nairobi we had a long interview with representatives of the government, the Kenyan Wildlife Service and NEMA. During our first trip there was always one scientist from the government with us, supervising our activities.
Then, transportation of the team and the equipment is another challenge, particularly in this fieldtrip because there were no detailed maps of the area. You really need to find a local person who take care of the organization. I was lucky to find Dr. Patricia Gitari, a Kenyan Ph.D. in Chemistry with a very deep knowledge of the country and the research. She was always a perfect organizer of the trip, managing from research permissions to transportation, food, and lodging. Patricia looked for good drivers and powerful 4x4 wheels SUVs. She was also instrumental in organizing the teaching activities and social contacts in the area.
With Lucas Soisoika and Masai children in Lake Natron.She also hired Lukas Sosoika, a Masai guide to help us in the field during our stage in the lakes Magadi and Little Magadi. The character of Daniel is based in our Masai guide Lukas. Lukas is actually a “moran,” a Masai warrior who have killed two lions. He had never attended school but he had a natural intelligence and a deep knowledge of the terrain. Lukas enjoyed so much the four days we stay in Magadi area that he asked me to travel with the expedition to the north of Kenya.
Lucas Sosoika left the area of Magadi for the first time in his life with us, and the trip was a fascinating learning experience for all us. Observing how he faced the life in the city of Nairobi, how he was amazed viewing for the first time with prismatic or the use of thermometers. Lukas is a clever man who was seeking to learn as much as possible. Once he became familiar with. The measurements and temperature, a certain day, he asked me: “Juanma, tell me, what is the pH.” Lukas is today helping us with the measurements of different parameters, and he is instrumental for exploring the area in search of springs and bizarre rock patterns
Chapter 2 ▾
The project Prometheus investigate the mechanisms of formation of silica carbonate biomorphs and other MIneral Self-Organized Structures (MISOS). We explore remote places in the world where extreme conditions required for the precipitation of MISOS still exist. We are performing field trips to the remote ophiolites of Oman and Spain, to the alkaline springs of the Cascades mountain in the north of California, to the soda lakes of the Kenyan Rift Valley, and also to the ultra-acidic water of the Danakil depression in Ethiopia. We aim to know if our laboratory-made structures are geochemically plausible, i.e., if they can be synthetized with natural waters and if even they are forming right now. These highly alkaline waters are today bizarre, but we claim that they were widespread in the early Earth before life appeared on our planet, i.e., more than four billion years ago. We argue that MISOS easily formed in that earliest oceans, that they were interacting with first organic compounds and that they were catalyzing the prebiotic chemistry leading to the origin of life. We have already demonstrated one of the main aims of the project, namely that all these MISOS form in the alkaline waters of Aqua de Ney, in California (Science Advances), in other words, that they are geochemically plausible. However, we have selected for the ERCcOMICS our on-going investigations in the so-called soda lakes of the Kenyan Rift Valley, where we are still working.
In this chapter, Professor Tomás de Arce and his team, the technician Paula, and the geochemist Huan are flying to Kenya. They will meet in Nairobi the Kenyan people who will help them to perform the fieldwork, namely the Kenyan chemist Karen, the driver David and her nice Abuja and Daniel, a Masai moran who was our guide in this remote area.
Chapter 1 ▾
Our planet is 4,560 million years old. It is very, very old. It seems easy to grasp how old it is. But it is not easy at all. Look at the picture. I usually use a stick to explain it in my lectures. The length of the stick is the history of the Earth. If we file the edge of the stick we kill not only mankind but all hominids. Dinosaurs, these strange creatures that look tremendously primitive were living only 60 million years. The oldest fossils of complex multicellular organisms appeared 560 million years ago. Photosynthetic bacteria enriched the atmosphere in oxygen 2.5 billion years ago. There is a strong controversy over which are the oldest fossils, but most experts would agree that some microstructures found in silex of 3,000 million years ago are fossil remnants of tiny single-celled organisms. There is no rocky remnant of the first five hundred million years of the history of the planet. But from some zircon crystals of that time found in more modern rocks we know that there were already oceans and the first vestiges of granitic continents 4.400 million years ago. At that time, the Earth, like any other planet in the solar system, was bummed by meteorites. One of them was so large that it broke apart a huge mass of the Earth that began to orbit around us: It is our Moon.
Like these meteorites, Promethea and Euclides came in a rocket just after the formation of the Moon and before the water condensed as liquid in our planet. They came from a remote planet called Polyhedra where rationality has defeated empathy, where nature has been totally replaced by an advanced (?) civilization based only on inorganic crystals. Promethea will recreate life with the hope to explore if a different destiny for other civilization is possible.
My ERC research project is called PROMETHEUS. The formal title is a little more abstruse: “Pattern formation and mineral self-organization in highly alkaline natural environments”. Years ago, I discovered some inorganic crystalline structures that, surprisingly, had a shape very similar to primitive living organisms. I named them silica biomorphs because silica is vital for obtaining these structures. I also found that these biomorphs form under similar chemical conditions to the rocks that contain the oldest remains of life on the planet, and with which they held an impressive morphological similarity. These studies were received with such mistrust that for several years, it proved difficult to publish the results because it was believed that my experiments must have been biologically contaminated. Today, silica biomorphs are investigated in many laboratories in the world, because of the importance in fundamental science, in life detection and origin of life studies, and also for their interest as advanced biomimetic materials.
The project Prometheus is aimed to:
- know in detail the mechanism of formation and the properties of silica biomorphs and other self-organized mineral structures.
- We aim also to proof or disproof that these structures are geologically plausible, i.e. that they can be formed from natural waters.
- We are also seeking for a methodology to distinguish these mineral self-organized structures from actual microfossils found in Archean rocks.
- We are investigating the role that these structures may play as catalyzers of the prebiotic chemistry.
- Silica biomorphs are fascinating structures because they mimic not only the morphology but also the textures of shells and bones. Prometheus also investigate the application of silica biomorphs as advanced materials.
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