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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 2. March 27, 1958

The Chemistry of Life

The Chemistry of Life

The greatest achievement in biological thinking in the nineteenth century, according to Dr. R. E. F. Matthews, was organic evolution, in which many different unrelated facts were made into a consistent story of living things. Darwin for instance had said that "God injected something outside matter into the first living life and from then on this process of organic evolution lead up to man."

Another of the nineteenth century evolutionists, Alfred Russell Wallace, had claimed that there were three stages in the development of the organic world. The first was that there was the change from the organic to the inorganic when the first vegetable cells or living protoplasm out of which life arose appeared. This involved something quite beyond increased complexity of chemical compounds. The first vegetable cell was a new thing which demonstrated its "vitality" in its fixation of the oxygen from the air and in its power of reproduction:

"We can reasonably account for the origin of life and for its maintenance in giving the properties of inorganic matter as we know them today," said Dr. Matthews.

Turning to the origins of life, Dr. Matthews said that there were only two possibilities, special creation in the beginning, or else spontaneous generation. Both these were theologically acceptable but today science allowed only the latter.

The earth in its earliest period was an ocean of water, where the atmosphere contained nitrogen and methane but not oxygen or carbon dioxide. This absence of oxygen and carbon dioxide means that the ultra-violet rays from the sun streamed through to the earth. Experiments had shown that with such conditions sub-units would arise spontaneously from many of the chemical compounds which would be present at that time. Since these newly broken down substances could not be oxidised by oxygen in the atmosphere or eaten by micro-organisms they aggregated into larger molecules. Once these aggregates formed in the soup of a sea, competition developed for food.

The use of energy was the next crucial step, explained Dr. Matthews, and almost certainly the first type was fermentation, a by-product of carbon dioxide, which was in turn released into the atmosphere. This allowed photosynthesis, the first really great process of living material, to develop. With photosynthesis established three things happened: primitive organisms were now independent of the sea soup from which they had arisen, there was oxygen in the atmosphere so that the ultra-violet rays were cut off from the sun thus allowing life to come on to the land, and there evolved an efficient source of energy producing compounds. Oxygen in the air thus allowed the development of respiration, an efficient method of using fuel.

"There is no essential difficulty in this sequence," said Dr. Matthews. "Although a lot of these reactions may seem highly improbable if they have any probability at all, given the vast period of time available—something like two billion years—a most improbable event becomes almost certain."

Photo of a man

Concluding his study of "spontaneous generation, the speaker said that the first primitive living cells did not reproduce sexually. This meant that the most important part of the reproductive process—the unifying of two different lines of experience—was precluded. With the development of sexual reproduction living matter was able to increase and vary greatly.

Dr. Matthews went on to show how children were similar to their parents. The sperm transmitted the detailed qualities to the offspring and how this took place had been the subject of much study in the nineteenth century. According to the Preformation school the sperm contained a complete little man, inside him was another complete little man, and so on. On this basis it had been estimated that Eve contained 1,542,657 little men. Today the view was one of germinal continuity; any animal was the home of the next generation but there was no relation between the body and the sperm cell.

The characters which made human life were individual units, generally stable and separated and assorted independently while the germ cells were being made. The children of blue and brown eyed parents for instance would be brown eyed, but some of the next generation blue eyed. "The essential fact is that the brown eyed carry information from the blue, but this information does not become contaminated or mixed through being in a 'blue eyed' body," said Dr. Matthews.

Inside the nucleus of the reproductive cells were a set of chromosomes which underwent complicated division, as a result of which each new cell received a completely new set. Recent work has shown nucleic acid to be the chemical bas's. Quoting experiments with a tobacco virus. Dr. Matthews said that the outer protein rod had been separated from the inner nucleic acid. It was found that the protein was unnecessary since only the nucleic acid was infected.

"For the first time we have experimental proof that one large chemical molecule can carry in some way the information for the production of another," he concluded.

Dr R. E. F. Matthews, M.Sc. Ph.D. (Comb.), Senior Principal Scientific Officer. Plant Diseases Division D.I.S.R., Auckland. Research worker on the biology and biochemistry of plant viruses. Travelled throughout Europe and North America.