1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Abiogenesis

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Abiogenesis, in biology, the term, equivalent to the older terms "spontaneous generation," Generatio aequivoca, Generatio primaria, and of more recent terms such as archegenesis and archebiosis, for the theory according to which fully formed living organisms sometimes arise from not-living matter. Aristotle explicitly taught abiogenesis, and laid it down as an observed fact that some animals spring from putrid matter, that plant-lice arise from the dew which falls on plants, that fleas are developed from putrid matter, and so forth. T. J. Parker (Elementary Biology) cites a passage from Alexander Ross, who, commenting on Sir Thomas Browne's doubt as to "whether mice may be bred by putrefaction," gives a clear statement of the common opinion on abiogenesis held until about two centuries ago. Ross wrote: "So may he (Sir Thomas Browne) doubt whether in cheese and timber worms are generated; or if beetles and wasps in cows' dung; or if butterflies, locusts, grasshoppers, shell-fish, snails, eels, and such like, be procreated of putrefied matter, which is apt to receive the form of that creature to which it is by formative power disposed. To question this is to question reason, sense and experience. If he doubts of this let him go to Egypt, and there he will find the fields swarming with mice, begot of the mud of Nylus, to the great calamity of the inhabitants."

The first step in the scientific refutation of the theory of abiogenesis was taken by the Italian Redi, who, in 1668, proved that no maggots were "bred" in meat on which flies were prevented by wire screens from laying their eggs. From the 17th century onwards it was gradually shown that, at least in the case of all the higher and readily visible organisms, abiogenesis did not occur, but that omne vivum e vivo, every living thing came from a pre-existing living thing.

The discovery of the microscope carried the refutation further. In 1683 A. van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria, and it was soon found that however carefully organic matter might be protected by screens, or by being placed in stoppered receptacles, putrefaction set in, and was invariably accompanied by the appearance of myriads of bacteria and other low organisms. As knowledge of microscopic forms of life increased, so the apparent possibilities of abiogenesis increased, and it became a tempting hypothesis that whilst the higher forms of life arose only by generation from their kind, there was a perpetual abiogenetic fount by which the first steps in the evolution of living organisms continued to arise, under suitable conditions, from inorganic matter. It was due chiefly to L. Pasteur that the occurrence of abiogenesis in the microscopic world was disproved as much as its occurrence in the macroscopic world. If organic matter were first sterilized and then prevented from contamination from without, putrefaction did not occur, and the matter remained free from microbes. The nature of sterilization, and the difficulties in securing it, as well as the extreme delicacy of the manipulations necessary, made it possible for a very long time to be doubtful as to the application of the phrase omne vivum e vivo to the microscopic world, and there still remain a few belated supporters of abiogenesis. Subjection to the temperature of boiling water for, say, half an hour seemed an efficient mode of sterilization, until it was discovered that the spores of bacteria are so involved in heat-resisting membranes, that only prolonged exposure to dry, baking heat can be recognized as an efficient process of sterilization. Moreover, the presence of bacteria, or their spores, is so universal that only extreme precautions guard against a re-infection of the sterilized material. It may now be stated definitely that all known living organisms arise only from pre-existing living organisms.

So far the theory of abiogenesis may be taken as disproved. It must be noted, however, that this disproof relates only to known existing organisms. All these are composed of a definite substance, known as protoplasm (q.v.), and the modern refutation of abiogenesis applies only to the organic forms in which protoplasm now exists. It may be that in the progress of science it may yet become possible to construct living protoplasm from non-living material. The refutation of abiogenesis has no further bearing on this possibility than to make it probable that if protoplasm ultimately be formed in the laboratory, it will be by a series of stages, the earlier steps being the formation of some substance, or substances, now unknown, which are not protoplasm. Such intermediate stages may have existed in the past, and the modern refutation of abiogenesis has no application to the possibility of these having been formed from inorganic matter at some past time. Perhaps the words archebiosis, or archegenesis, should be reserved for the theory that protoplasm in the remote past has been developed from not-living matter by a series of steps, and many of those, notably T. H. Huxley, who took a large share in the process of refuting contemporary abiogenesis, have stated their belief in a primordial archebiosis. (See Biogenesis and Life.)

(P. C. M.)