Juan Manuel García Ruiz: The scientist who explains the origin of life thanks to a metal and without God | Sciences

A 22-year-old American man, Stanley Miller, proposed to his boss in 1952 one of the simplest and most ambitious experiments in history: to imitate the conditions of primitive Earth in a glass jar, to see if nothing would come out of it. Something like life In his laboratory From the University of Chicago. They injected ammonia, methane, hydrogen and water vapor to simulate the atmosphere, and applied electrical discharge…

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A 22-year-old American man, Stanley Miller, proposed to his boss in 1952 one of the simplest and most ambitious experiments in history: to imitate the conditions of primitive Earth in a glass jar, to see if nothing would come out of it. Something like life In his laboratory From the University of Chicago. They injected ammonia, methane, hydrogen and water vapor to simulate the atmosphere, applied electrical discharges as if they were storms and “Eureka!”: amino acids, the building blocks of living organisms, soon appeared. Spanish Geological Team Juan Manuel Garcia Ruiz He repeated the experiment in 2021 in a Teflon container and surprised the world: there nothing showed up. “¡La clave era la sílice del vidrio!”, exclama el investigador, it costs 10 millones de euros de la UE for the estudiar el papel de la vidrio (un mineral formado por silicio y oxígeno) en el origen de la vida the earth.

García Ruiz, born in Seville 70 years ago, constantly talks about the Granada poet Federico García Lorca, even to explain his own studies. The geologist has lived for more than 30 years in Granada, as a researcher at the Andalusian Institute of Geosciences. The world recites verses from memory Poet in New Yorka 1929 collection of poems in which Lorca condemns the dehumanization of the great industrial city: “The sky killed him / Between the shapes that turn towards the serpent / And the shapes that search for the crystal / I will let my hair fall.”

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García Ruiz turns to Lorca to explain the rejection his ideas about the origin of life have suffered for nearly four decades. When the geologist was a student in his twenties at the Complutense University of Madrid, around 1979, he accidentally discovered Some amazing structures Microscopic minerals with strange curves and spirals, like the winding snakes (serpents) that Lorca mentioned before the majestic straightness of the glass skyscrapers. These unusual shapes looked like living organisms, but were simply self-organizing deposits of silica and carbonate in her laboratory containers. Nothing like it has ever been seen.

The geologist recalls seeing in the June 1980 issue of the newspaper EL PAÍS a historical photo story: The team of the American biologist William Schopf He announced the discovery of bacterial fossils in an Australian desert area, which will prove that life actually existed on Earth 3.5 billion years ago. García Ruiz was stunned when he looked at the image: the supposed remains of the first living organisms resembled the metallic structures that had formed in his laboratory.

Self-organizing mineral structures, called biomorphs, have nothing to do with living organisms.Juan Manuel García Ruiz/CSIC

Years later, he attended an international conference in Prague on the origin of life to present his discovery. “I was very young and it was the first time I had used a laser pointer. “He put the laser in my mouth so I could speak, and pointed the microphone at me,” he recalls, laughing. “At the end, one guy said to me: ‘Thank you very much, but everything you’re saying is not true. completely”.

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García Ruiz ended up calling these curved mineral microstructures biomorphs, which looked like living organisms but were not. The young geologist faced international skepticism. “I said that what were considered the first fossils could simply be self-organizing structures. It took me years to publish it. “They told me that I was doing the experiments wrong, that there was biological contamination, and that it was impossible for something inorganic to have these forms.” Belief, according to the geologist, is a profound belief in two separate worlds: the rectilinear geometry of crystal and the extreme curvature of life. Like Lorca's poetry in New York.

It was presented to the world by then US President Bill Clinton on August 7, 1996 meteor Of Martian origin. “It tells us about the possibility of life. “If this discovery is confirmed, it will be one of the most astonishing discoveries science has ever made about our universe.” celebrate Clinton. NASA scientists Defend That threads found in extraterrestrial rocks were an indicator of the presence of fossilized microbes. Garcia Ruiz, from the Supreme Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), He insisted on In that no.

Geologist Juan Manuel García Ruiz and Maasai guide Lucas Susuyka, on an expedition to Lake Magadi, in Kenya.Javier Trueba

The Spanish scientist declared victory in 2003, and finally published his results In the prestigious magazine Sciences: His team has synthesized filamentous and curved microscopic structures that are practically identical to putative fossils of bacteria found in the Warawona Formation, in Western Australia. “There was an idea that the inorganic world could not take on the complex, curved shapes of microfossils. We prove that yes. Morphology cannot be an unambiguous criterion for defining life,” he says now, during his online tour. Exhibition About British evolutionist Alfred Wallace at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid.

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Garcia Ruiz's discoveries cast doubt on official announcements about traces of organisms 3.5 billion years old, but the geologist does not doubt the antiquity of life. His hypothesis is that 4.4 billion years ago – after another planet collided with Earth, the remains of which gave rise to the Moon – there were already large clumps there. Blocks of water, with a surface head in which the curves of the silica bioforms facilitated interactions between the first bricks of life, like the glass container in Miller's experiment. There are thousands of religions in the world, with thousands of contradictory stories about the emergence of living beings, but García Ruiz believes that there is no need for any of those thousands of incompatible gods to explain this phenomenon. “I'm an atheist,” he concedes.

Starting in May, the Spanish geologist will coordinate the PROTOS project, which is funded by the European Research Council with around 10 million euros. He will leave Granada, Lorca, to join To the Donostia International Center for Physics. García Ruiz's team, with colleagues from France and Germany, will conduct countless experiments to understand how fluids interacted with rocks on the early Earth, even on the scale of a millionth of a millimeter, to go from a lifeless metallic planet to a world. With poets who sing verses on curved lines. “We will reinterpret Miller's experiment, because he forgot about silica,” Garcia Ruiz announced.

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