The phrase “building blocks of life” is pregnant with misinformation.

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA)

Starry eyed:  Many organic molecules have been found in space by their spectra.  New ones are added to the collection from time to time.  The latest is glycolaldehyde, a simple sugar, found by astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile around a young star.  No planets were found, because according to theory, they come later in the star’s evolution.  A press release from the University of Copenhagen, “Sweet building blocks of life found around young star,” sent reporters into lockstep confirmation mode.  Science Daily reposted the press release verbatim even though it was primarily promoting the university’s homeboy, Jes Jørgensen, and didn’t explain whether the simple carbohydrate, containing only common carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, would survive any planet’s fiery formation without turning into tar. PhysOrg dropped the “sweet” word, but reprinted the press release uncritically.   Live Sciencecalled this a “space sugar” and stated the phrase “building blocks of life” twice.  At National Geographic, Ker Than was ecstatic about the “sweet discovery,” asking in big, bold print, “Sugar Found In Space: A Sign of Life?”  The presence of this molecule floating in gas was enough to suggest “the possibility of life on other planets.”  Later in the article he did admit, “Glycoaldehyde can be found on Earth, usually in the form of an odorless white powder” that is really not used to sweeten foods.  It’s significance derives from some scientists who “think it plays a key role in the chemical reaction that forms ribonucleic acid (RNA), a crucial biomolecule present in all living cells.”

Phosphorus for us:  NASA Astrobiology Magazine turned its excitement to phosphorus, a molecule not common on earth but essential to life.  In “Life’s First Taste of Phosphorus,” (an odd title considering the highly-toxic element became essential in compounds long before taste buds evolved in the evolutionary scenario), reporter Michael Scherber provided this summary:  “Phosphorus is vital to life on Earth, even though our planet doesn’t provide life very much phosphorus to work with. Scientists are now studying how phosphorus biochemistry may have originated at the dawn of life.”  Phosphorus ranks 17th in abundance on earth, and is generally locked up in inaccessible minerals, the article explained; available forms tend to be deep in earth’s core.  But phosphorus is a vital part of DNA, RNA, and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), and “shows up in a surprisingly wide range of biological molecules.”  So where did life get it?  The article’s best answer: meteorites.  Georgia Tech’s Nicholas Hud became chief storyteller for the scenario of what happened after meteorites provided a veneer of the essential element:…

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