Press Release

Jigsaw model of the origin of life published

Organization: GFT Group Incorporated
Date Released: February 13, 2002

Jigsaw model of the origin of life, a new theory of the origin of life, has been published by the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE). The paper was presented at the annual Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology conference, July 29 – 30, 2001 in San Diego, California by John McGowan, a scientist with GFT Group Incorporated.

The molecular building blocks of all living organisms from the simplest bacteria to man fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Traditionally it has been thought that this tight matching of molecular constituents of life such as DNA, RNA, and proteins evolved slowly over billions of years. The new theory suggests that life originated when a giant molecule fragmented into tightly matching molecular pieces, the chemical equivalent of cutting a single piece of cardboard into a jigsaw puzzle.

The new theory may have significant practical implications. These include:

Primordial pre-cellular organisms may exist on Earth today and cause some poorly understood diseases. These organisms are difficult to detect using conventional methods. An instrument to detect and isolate these organisms is presented in the paper.

The paper shows how to use targeted mobile genetic elements with genetic payloads to generate complex genetic networks such as the signal transduction networks implicated in cancer. Cures or treatments for cancer, aging, and radiation poisoning – for example from nuclear war, terrorism, reactor accidents, or deep space missions – may use mobile genetic elements to regenerate complex genetic networks that have been damaged.

The new theory suggests that the probability of spontaneous generation of life may be higher than previous estimates. Life may be common where the appropriate conditions occur.

GFT Group Incorporated is a private consulting firm.

More details including a link to the full paper may be found below.

Title: Jigsaw model of the origin of life
Author: John F. McGowan


It is suggested that life originated in a three-step process referred to as the jigsaw model. RNA, proteins, or similar organic molecules polymerized in a dehydrated carbon-rich environment, on surfaces in a carbon-rich environment, or in another environment where polymerization occurs. These polymers subsequently entered an aqueous environment where they folded into compact structures. It is argued that the folding of randomly generated polymers such as RNA or proteins in water tends to partition the folded polymer into domains with hydrophobic cores and matching shapes to minimize energy. In the aqueous environment, hydrolysis or other reactions fragmented the compact structures into two or more matching molecules, occasionally producing simple living systems, also known as autocatalytic sets of molecules. It is argued that the hydrolysis of folded polymers such as RNA or proteins is not random. The hydrophobic cores of the domains are rarely bisected due to the energy requirements in water. Hydrolysis preferentially fragments the folded polymers into pieces with complementary structures and chemical affinities. Thus the probability of producing a system of matched, interacting molecules in prebiotic chemistry is much higher than usually estimated. Environments where this process may occur are identified. For example, the jigsaw model suggests life may have originated at a seep of carbonaceous fluids beneath the ocean. The polymerization occurred beneath the sea floor. The folding and fragmentation occurred in the ocean. The implications of this hypothesis for seeking life or prebiotic chemistry in the Solar System are explored.

Keywords: RNA, protein, polymer, jigsaw, origin

John F. McGowan, III, "Jigsaw model of the origin of life" in Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology IV, Richard B. Hoover, Gilbert V. Levin, Roland R. Paepe, Alexei Yu. Rozanov, Editors, Proceedings of SPIE Vol. 4495, pp. 199 – 210 (2002)

An electronic preprint is available at:

The file is in Adobe Acrobat PDF 4.0 file format. A free PDF viewer is available from the Adobe web site

John F. McGowan, Ph.D.
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