(Credit: NASA, H. Richey)

(Credit: NASA, H. Richey)

It was heralded as decisive proof of the theory of evolution. But Harvard biologist and Nobel Prize laureate Jack Szostak now has retracted a major paper that claimed to explain one of the most important questions about the origin of human life.

In 2016, Szostak published a paper claiming he had found a way for ribonucleic acid (RNA) to replicate itself.

Many proponents of evolutionary theory believe RNA was one of the first molecules to develop. However, RNA requires its own enzymes to replicate.

Szostak and others were looking for evidence of “non-enzymatic replication of RNA,” which could supposedly assemble by irradiating materials that would have been present on Earth in an earlier time.

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If this could be created, it would show RNA could copy itself and could have evolved before DNA or proteins, bolstering the naturalistic explanation of life’s origins.

However, Szostak recently retracted his paper after colleague Tivoli Olsen couldn’t replicate the findings. Szostak said the debacle was “definitely embarrassing.”

“In retrospect, we were totally blinded by our belief [in our findings] … we were not as careful or rigorous as we should have been (and as Tivoli was) in interpreting these experiments,” Szostak told the publication Retraction Watch.

However, he did express relief it was his own lab that discovered the errors.

“As a scientist the job is to troubleshoot,” said Olsen. “You can’t help nor can you ignore where that takes you. I fulfilled my obligation to ensure that no one after me would waste their time on this.”

The finding is the latest in a “replication crisis” sweeping the scientific community in which apparent breakthroughs cannot be repeated by other researchers.

Szostak’s study reopens what is perhaps the largest hole in evolutionary theory, as scientists remain unable to explain how the building blocks of life were “spontaneously” created.

Szostak’s comment that his team was “blinded by our belief” is significant. Previously, he condemned “belief systems based on faith” as “inherently dangerous, as they leave the believer susceptible to manipulation when skepticism and inquiry are discouraged.”

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