5: The Power Source for Life on Earth

chapter Five: The Power Source

Four things would required to send life to another planet:

1. The hardware: the DNA itself and all of the proteins needed to allow the DNA to reproduce itself and support a living organism (itself).

2. The power system. Something must provide the energy for the life forces to use for their operation.

3. The Operating system.

4. The bootstrap.

All living things on Earth have exactly the same power source. All of our critical functions run off of electricity. Muscles are electrical devices. If you take a muscle of a dead animal, and apply electricity, it will contract with great force; remove the electricity and it will expand. Many children perform an experiment with frog’s legs in grade school science that help them see how muscles work.

Your brains process information using electricity. You can get an EEG, where the doctors will put receptors on your head in various places that read the electrical activity below. A common legal definition for ‘death’ is ‘the absence of electrical activity in the brain.’ If the electricity is not there, life is not there either. Researchers have shown that electricity powers cell division and DNA replication. DNA even keeps warm-bodied beings warm.

Electricity and the Body

In the video to the right, you can see what happens to the muscles in a frog’s leg when electricity is applied: they contract. The higher the voltage (the more energy supplied) the more force the contractions have. Muscles are electrical devices that do mechanical work. The more electricity they have, the more work they will do.

Qqqq frogs leg video

You can see by the video that the electricity can’t possibly be stimulating the frog’s body to do something that causes the muscle to contract, because there is no frog’s body, just the leg. You can find many videos where the outer covering of the muscles are removed and the muscles are stimulated directly with electricity. The muscles contract. The frog doesn’t have to be alive for this to happen. It is very clear that muscles are electrical devices. There is no magic essence that causes frog muscles to move; science can explain everything that happens.

This is not just true for frogs. It is true for all living things, including you. When you move your arm, your body is sending electricity to the muscles, causing them to contract. When you breathe, your body is sending electricity to the lung muscles, causing them to change their shape in ways that make your lungs larger and smaller. When your heart beats, electricity goes to a variable-speed electrical pump that is capable of reacting within seconds to any additional need for energy or oxygen.


Where does the electricity come from?

It is made through a rather amazing process.

Inside of each cell of your body are between 1000 and 2000 tiny power cells called ‘mitochondria.’ Each of these power cells starts with very simple ingredients: glucose and oxygen. The glucose contains latent energy that originally came from the sun: it was created by a plant through photosynthesis. The plant broke down the molecules of carbon dioxide from the air and water from rain, and recombined them into glucose.

Glucose is C6H12O6 meaning six atoms of carbon, 12 of hydrogen, and 6 of oxygen. The carbon came from carbon dioxide: 6 carbon dioxide molecules were broken down to get the carbon. The hydrogen came from water; 6 molecules of water were broken down. A total of 18 atoms of oxygen came from the water and carbon dioxide. 6 of them became a part of the glucose and the other 12 were released in to the air, in the form of 6 molecules of oxygen.

Energy is required to tear apart the starting molecules and put them back together. This energy comes from the sun.

The mitochondria basically reverse this process, tearing the glucose apart. Each molecule of glucose removed is converted into 6 molecules of carbon dioxide and 6 molecules of water. 12 atoms (6 molecules) of oxygen are needed for this. The oxygen comes from the air. (You breathe it in; the blood transports it to the cell).

The energy that was originally used to make the glucose is now released; it is available for the mitochondria to use. It basically uses this energy to create electricity through the process described below.

This basically means that your bodies, and the bodies of all living things on Earth, run on energy that originally came from the sun. We are ‘solar powered.’

How does this lead to electricity? The electricity comes from chemical reactions between electrolytes. The specific electrolytes, the chemicals that produce the electricity, are phosphates. The system in our bodies produces electricity in much the same way as some of the most advanced batteries that have ever been created, called lithium phosphate batteries.

Why this information?

Many people see the complexity of life and think that magic has to be involved in some way; science can’t explain the things we see. It is true that these matters are complex. But everything we see can be explained scientifically; everything. It is not necessary and was never necessary

The molecule that holds the energy is called ‘adenosine triphosphate’ commonly referred to by its abbreviation ATP. I think it is easier to picture the way ATP works if we think of a capital letter E. The spine of the E is an adenosine amino acid; each of the three legs is a phosphate group. It requires energy to ‘load’ the phosphate groups onto the ‘spine.’ If you want to picture what happens, you could think of a spring on the spine that has to be compressed to ‘load’ a phosphate group. This requires energy. The energy is then stored in the form of the compressed spring. If the body wants the energy, it can release the catch that holds the phosphate group and allow the spring to uncoil and throw the group out. This will release energy and, because of the way it works, this energy will be in the form of an electrical spark.

If the body needs energy in a certain place, it sends ATP to that place. For example, you may move your leg at just about any time, so the ATP needs to be at the base of the muscle all of the time. At a signal from your nervous system, the ATP releases a phosphate group, creating the electricity needed to move the muscle. If the muscle needs to keep moving, more ATP is required. The ATP has three phosphate groups. Normally, it only releases one of them, converting the adenosine triphosphate to adenosine diphosphate (the same molecule with one of the phosphate groups gone; you could think of it as a capital F rater than a capital E). If the demand for electricity is very high—say you are lifting something very heavy or running very fast—the adenosine diphosphate will release another phosphate group, becoming adenosine monophosphate. Each time this happens, small amount of electricity is produced to move the muscle.

ATP is called the ‘energy currency’ of living things on Earth. It is the thing our bodies run on; it is the same energy source that all Earth life—from the simplest algae to the most intelligent humans—runs on.

Living organisms recycle ATP constantly. If electricity is needed, the phosphate groups are allowed to fly off, releasing the electrical energy. The result is adenosine diphosphate and the extra phosphate group. These to materials make their way back to the mitochondria. The mitochondria then use additional glucose (usually from food) and oxygen (from when you inhale; the oxygen is moved to the needed places by blood) to ‘compress the spring’ and put the phosphate group back on. Since your body is always using energy, this is a constant process. It happens everywhere your body needs electricity.

To read this, you will have to focus your eyes: this requires energy. The energy comes from ATP in your eyes. The eye will send electrical symbols down the optic nerve; this requires electricity that comes from ATP in the optic nerve. Your brain will then have to process the information. This requires electricity that will come from ATP in your brain. Your cells will need to make proteins. This requires dividing DNA to make messenger RNA, something that requires energy. Again, this energy comes from electricity and the electricity is produced by the breakdown of ATP. There is only one power source in the human body or in the bodies or sells of any living things on Earth: electricity generated by ATP. We are, literally, electric machines.

How it Works

Let’s trace the energy system of your body from beginning to end:

It starts when you eat food. I want to start with the simplest possible case, so let’s say you are eating something  which breaks down into basically pure glucose, white bread. Say you eat 100 grams of white bread. White bread is basically long chains of glucose molecules that are called ‘starch.’ As soon as the bread hits your mouth, your body introduces an enzyme called ‘amylase’ that breaks the bonds that hold these chains together, releasing 100 grams of pure glucose in to mouth and esophagus. Glucose is a tiny, tiny molecule. It can easily go through the walls of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestine, into the bloodstream. Within about 2 minutes after you eat, your blood glucose level will increase. (You can check this with a blood glucose meter that you can get at any drug store.) The blood glucose level will increase and reach a peak about 20 minutes after you finish eating the bread.

Nearly all of the cells of your body store some glucose. They store it in a kind of protein container called ‘glycogen.’ I like to think of glycogen as a tiny, thin net bag. Each ‘bag’ can hold about 50,000 molecules of glucose. Each of your cells has thousands of these ‘bags of glucose’ (glycogen nodules) in them. These are the stored energy of the cells, to be used when the cells need energy. As you use energy, the mitochondria take glucose out of these bags and use it as needed.

The cell walls don’t normally let more glucose get in. However, when your blood glucose rises above a certain level, the cells that need glucose (to replenish their glycogen supplies) send a signal out to the body to secrete ‘insulin.’ This insulin attaches to insulin receptors on these cells. This basically creates a kind of tunnel from outside the cell to inside the cell that is just big enough for glucose to get in. The glucose will flow into the cell as long as the insulin is attached to the receptors. At a certain point, the cell has enough glucose and signals the receptors to release the insulin. After this point, the glucose can’t get into the cells anymore. If glucose levels remain high, after the cells have all ‘eaten’ as much glucose as they need, the body will signal the liver to start turning this glucose into fat. (The fat is called ‘triglycerides.’ If you have your blood tests done at a physical, they will test your level of triglycerides. They are testing the fat level of your blood. More triglycerides, more fat in your bloodstream. If your triglycerides levels remain high for a long time, the body will start to store the fat in the liver and other places in your body.)

Each of your cells also has several thousand mitochondria. The mitochondria are the power cells. They produce the energy-containing ATP, through a process called the ‘Krebs Cycle,’ after Thomas Krebs, its discoverer.

The cycle is never ending so we need to pick a random place to enter it in order to explain it. We will start at the point where the mitochondria manufacture ATP. They basically take residual of past reactions, which means ADP (adenosine diphosphate, the same molecule with one less phosphate group) and a phosphate group. Then they put them back together to make ATP.

The ATP is electrically unstable. It wants to release a phosphate group and, in the process, release its electrical energy. But various enzymes in your muscle cells act as insulators and put themselves between the ATP molecule and the working nodules within the muscle cell. This prevents the electricity from flowing and prevents the chemical change. (Basically, this is like turning off the switch of a flashlight: the switch creates an air gap that the electricity can’t pass, so the batteries can’t have the chemical reactions that produce electricity.)

Let’s say we are talking about a leg muscle and you decide to move the leg. Your brain sends an electrical signal down to the leg muscle. This signal tells the enzymes that insulate the ATP to move out of the way, and they do so. As soon as your muscle cells get the electricity, they contract, making the muscle shorter. Since the muscle is attached to bones that are jointed, the contraction causes your leg to move.

As the ATP releases its energy, it changes itself to a less-energetic form: it is now one molecule of ADP (adenosine diphosphate) with a phosphate group nearby. The mitochondria now soak up this ADP and phosphate group. The mitochondria take a glucose molecule and some oxygen (which comes to them through the blood from hemoglobin) and use the energy in the glucose to recombine the ADP and phosphate group to form another molecule of ATP. If you want to keep moving your leg (say you are running), this ATP powers the running motion.

Because the manufacture of ATP requires oxygen, as soon as you start moving your muscles your cells will signal your heart and lungs to speed up, to provide the additional oxygen needed to metabolize the glucose. If you operate your muscles for a long time (say you are running a marathon), your cells will go through their stored glycogen in about 20 minutes.

Runners know this and can take steps to make it last longer. One common step is called ‘carbohydrate loading.’ This involves consuming large amounts of glucose-rich food to saturate the cells with glycogen. If you do this, then run until you feel pain, then carbohydrate load again and do it again, and keep doing it, day after day, your cells will start to learn that your normal activities require more than the normal amount of glycogen. They will start to increase the glycogen they store, allowing you to run longer before the pain starts. If you train this way long enough (it make take several years) you will eventually be able to run an entire marathon without any significant muscle pain.

People who have not been through the training won’t be able to do this. Most of us can only run for a few minutes before both the glycogen and ATP are gone. After these things are gone, your muscles will send signals to your brain that tell it that the muscles are being pushed beyond their limits. At this point, there is still energy available however. The adenosine diphosphate still has two phosphate groups attached to its spine. It will begin using this to generate an emergency supply of electricity. Although you will feel incredible pain, as you push to use this energy, the cell still has quite a bit of energy. All of the Adenosine diphosphate can be broken down to adenosine monophosphate.

You might imagine why this rather large reserve of energy is so necessary: if the electrical activity ever stops, the cell is dead and can’t do anything. There will be times when someone will have to run to save her life even past the point of normal human endurance. Even after the adenosine diphosphate has broken down, there is still an energy reserve. The adenosine monophosphate can release its last phosphate group, giving a final burst of energy. When all of the adenosine monophosphate is gone, it is like shutting off a switch. There is no more electricity to run the muscles, no more electricity to run the nerves, no more electricity to transmit the pain signals to the brain. Normally, the first muscle to give out under extreme stress is heart. The heart is nearly all muscle and can use an enormous amount of energy in an extreme situation. The body will try to save it of course. It will pump ATP from other parts of the body to the heart, bring in oxygen as quickly as possible, and pump any excess glucose or glycogen in nearby areas to the heart. But there will come a time when the heart just isn’t getting enough electricity to run at the required speed. It stops providing sufficient oxygenated blood to the most important organ it services, itself, and is no longer able to operate. No amount of will power will allow you to keep going after this happens: you will collapse and, if the heart doesn’t start beating again, you will die.

Each time the mitochondria breaks down a glucose molecule, it gets enough energy manufacture 4 ATP molecules. This basically means it is able to take for of the ‘F’ configuration adenosine diphosphate molecules and add another phosphate group to turn them into E configuration molecules. It needs 6 atoms of oxygen to make this happen. The oxygen comes from the atmosphere; you breathe it in, it gets into the hemoglobin and is transported to the cells through the blood system. The glucose no longer exists; nothing is left but carbon dioxide and water. The carbon dioxide goes back through the bloodstream to the lungs, where you exhale it into the atmosphere. The water is removed from the blood at the kidneys and sent to the bladder to be expelled from the body as urine.

Normal Metabolism

The glucose normally comes from the food you eat. Most people eat diets that are high in something dietitians call ‘starch.’ Starch is basically nothing but a long chain of glucose molecules. The enzyme amylase breaks down the starch into glucose in seconds. If you eat a high-starch diet, your body can get all of the glucose it needs from this diet, without having to process anything.

What if you don’t eat a lot of glucose?

Normally, this isn’t a problem. Your body can take other food items and convert them to glucose. Through a process called ‘gluconeogenesis,’ the body can turn a wide variety of other organic materials into glucose. Normally, what happens is this: when you eat, the glucose gets into your blood right away. Other foods go into the stomach where they are dissolved by hydrochloric acid to turn them into things small enough to get through the intestinal wall. Proteins are broken down into amino acids. Fats are broken down into fatty acids. These tiny things can get through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. But the body often doesn’t need them. If the body doesn’t need certain amino or fatty acids, it won’t absorb them. They will be expelled with the feces. If the body needs certain amino acids to make proteins, it will absorb it and send it where it is needed. If it needs certain fatty acids to make fats, it will absorb them.

If you aren’t eating enough glucose to sustain yourself, your body will absorb the amino acids and fatty acids and convert them into glucose, through the process of gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is a very slow process, often taking many hours to turn the food you eat into glucose. That is why foods high in glucose satisfy you quickly, while foods high in proteins and fats take longer to work but keep you from feeling hungry for a much longer period of time.

What if you don’t get enough glucose and you aren’t eating any proteins or fats either? In other words, what happens if you don’t eat anything?

If you don’t eat for a long period of time, your body will start to consume itself. Your body has certain stored fats. It can break them down and use them to make ATP out of ADP and phosphate groups. It can break down proteins. It can consume critical organs for sustenance. It will try its best to keep you alive, no matter what. While it is consuming itself, it will send you very powerful signals of real pain. You will realize that even the tiniest bit of food will ease the pain and feel pressure to find something to eat. If you don’t eat long enough, there will come a time when the body won’t be able to make ATP anymore. It will use what it has until it is all ADP. It will then use that until it is AMP. It will use the AMP until it is gone and then the electrical activity will stop and you will be dead.


Note: electricity powers all living things on earth and ATP is the only way this electricity is made; however, not all living things use the highly efficient process of making ATP that takes place mitochondria. Cyanobacteria don’t even have mitochondria. They therefore must make their ATP through ‘anaerobic’ processes that are far less efficient than the process used by your body and all other living things that have mitochondria. The process used by the mitochondria (called the ‘Krebs cycle) is about 98% efficient, meaning that 98% of the chemical energy that is tied up in the glucose is converted into usable electricity. The process used by ‘anaerobic’ beings, including cyanobacteria, is only about 3% efficient. That is one of the reasons that anaerobic beings can’t be very complicated: they don’t have enough energy to run complicated processes.

Humans are electrical machines. The electricity comes from tiny power modules called ‘mitochondria.’ Each of the mitochondria is a self-contained electric generating system. You have several thousand of these power modules in each of your cells. The cells are involved with a lot of electrical activities. They have to have power all the time.

There are certain devices that absolutely need to be powered every single second, without fail, or they will no longer operate. Most computers are like that: they don’t ‘remember’ the operating system; it is programmed into the computer and, if the power goes out, the entire set of instructions is lost. If you restore the power, but don’t reinstall the operating system, the computer is nothing but a bunch of silicon dioxide (sand). It doesn’t do anything. It needs the instruction set restored.

The cells of our bodies are like that. They need power all the time, without a second of interruption. They are built with multiple redundant power systems to make sure they never lose power. If a few of the power modules (mitochondria) should die or stop functioning, this won’t matter. The redundancies are enormous, with thousands of backup power modules. Even the power modules can’t produce enough electricity to supply the cell, this doesn’t matter: the cell has ATP in storage that it can use to generate electricity. Even if all of the ATP is used up, it can begin to use ADP for electricity. If all the ADP is used up, it can use AMP for electricity.

There are thousands of storage pods for glucose in each cell; each of these pods, called a ‘glycogen nodule,’ contains about 50,000 glucose molecules. If the glucose levels get low, the cells can send a signal to bring in insulin and that will open a tunnel and start to usher through more glucose. If there isn’t enough glucose in the blood for this, your body will tell you to eat something, preferably something high in glucose (starch). If you don’t eat, your body can break down triglycerides, the simple fats it uses to store excess glucose that is not inside of a cell (glucose stored in a cell is in the form of glycogen). If you don’t have enough triglycerides, the body will start extracting amino acids and fatty acids from whatever is in the intestine and turn them into glucose. If you stop eating, your body has redundancy after redundancy that it will go through, one at a time, to make sure its cells are always being powered.

It is an amazing system. But it is not magic. Every single reaction conforms exactly to known laws of chemistry and physics.

I suppose it is possible that such a system came to exist as a result of random chance. (It did not evolve, at least not here on Earth: the very first living things on this planet, the cyanobacteria that lived while most of the crust was still molten, used the exact same power system.) But it is incredibly unlikely that such a set of systems would suddenly materialize out of nothing. You might compare this to the likelihood of blowing up a nuclear bomb in a metal rich area and having a brand new Tesla roadster materialize out of the parts, in full working order and will all of the parts polished and beautiful. It is not entirely impossible. But it is so unlikely that we can rule it out as a practical outcome.

What if someone with technology far superior to ours wanted to send life to another world? They would need a power system. The power system would have to be foolproof. Once the first cell was ‘alive,’ the processes of life would have to be powered from then on, with no interruptions, ever. You could let some things just happen through evolution. But the power system could not be left to chance.

The power system has one more important feature that youhave to understand to really appreciate how much work had to have gone into developing it:

Mitochondria have its own DNA. This DNA is totally separate from he DNA of your nucleus. Because mitochondria have its own DNA, and reproduce themselves, your body does not make the ones inside of your cells. They make themselves. They clearly meet the definition of ‘life’ so they have life. Their ‘lives’ are independent of your life. You could say that there are trillions of tiny living power cells in your body. These cells reproduce by the process of mitosis, which means that they make exact copies of themselves. Their DNA chains are very short and their DNA is will protected, deep within a cell that is itself within a cell. Because of this, mutations are incredibly rare.

The mitochondria that are in your body now were never really ‘born.’ They are living cells that were split off of other living cells without any transition period where they were nonliving. Since the mitochondria in your body now were in the egg that your mother produced that led to you as a person before that egg was fertilized, they were alive before you existed. The mitochondria that were in her egg before you were conceived have a chain of life, through their ancestors, that goes back to before your mother was born and, for that matter, to before she was even conceived. In fact, you can follow this ‘chain of life’ back through the generations for as many generations as you wish. If there was a first woman on Earth, a sort of mother to the current human race, the same mitochondria that are alive in you were alive in her.

In fact, you can go back before that. The same mitochondria that were alive in the first woman on Earth were also alive in the first female mammal. If there is a ‘mother mammal to us all’ you and I and everyone on Earth, together with every other mammal on the planet, share something of her life; a part of what was alive in her is alive in all of us. But it goes back far before that. The mitochondrial DNA is all basically the same, of all beings on Earth, from the first cyanobacteria to the most recently born humans. There can never been a point at which a mitochondria that is now alive was not ‘under power’ and undergoing the life force because mitochondria, like their larger cousins ‘cells,’ need power ever microsecond to keep functioning. If they lose their power, they lose their operating system and become nothing but corpses. This means that there is a part of you, a part of you that is alive, that is shared with every living thing on Earth. This revelation gives new meaning to some of the principles of the American native people as they lived before the conquest, as represented by this passage from Chief Seattle’s letter to Pierce in 1854:

We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.

A great many things about the operations of living organisms reek of intelligent design. The power system seems to be very much in this category. If it were intelligent design, we would have to give the designers of the power system very high marks for competence.

Of course, they would have to be.

This power system would have to be able to fit into an incredibly tiny package. They would have to work in a virtually foolproof manner, with no shutdowns even for a microsecond. They would have to perform their work continuously over billions of years, without fail. They would have to retain their original integrity even though they were inside of a being that was changing and evolving constantly. They would have to support the power needs of a being as tiny as bacteria, as large as an elephant, and as complicated as the brain of Einstein. These are amazing design requirements and to think that a power source that does all of these things could simply materialize due to a lighting strike in a soup of chemicals seems downright silly. The power system that supports life on Earth had to have been designed by an intelligent being.

If we accept this, we have to accept that life on earth has meaning. Perhaps we may not know what it is, with this information alone. But we can know it is there and can begin looking for it. If we start looking for it, we have a chance of finding it. If we don’t ever start looking for it, we clearly won’t find it. For centuries, accepted there is no reason to look at such things because there is a simple explanation for everything: an invisible being did everything by magic; recently, people have replaced this explanation with a second one, the idea that it is all random chance and there is therefore no meaning and no reason to look for the meaning. We are now at a point where we can look at the realities of human existence with a new perspective. We have sciences that can help us see that it is extremely likely that we are here for a reason. What is that reason? We actually have tools that we can use to help figure this out also.

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