Laureate lays out disputed vision of life before oxygen
The Nation, National - Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Life may have been present on Earth even prior to the appearance of
oxygen on the planet, according to 1998 Nobel Laureate for Medicine
Prof Ferid Murad. American-born Murad is credited with discovering that
a small gaseous molecule called nitric oxide, better known as NO, acts
as a biological messenger among mammals at the cellular level; an
entirely new biological concept with many medical applications that
have benefited millions around the globe.
Murad said that while oxygen is believed to have first appeared on
Earth three billion years ago, deep in the boiling oceans, some of the
world's first organisms predate this, having managed to 'communicate'
chemically with one another through a gaseous molecule like NO.
'I think NO played a role in the evolutionary process,' said Murad in a
lecture at Chulalongkorn University, part of an ongoing series of
lectures called 'Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace'
organised by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.
His claim is highly controversial - Murad admits it's beyond his
ability to prove his hypothesis about life before oxygen. However, NO
applications in the field of medicine have become a reality, despite
the fact that many of his colleagues doubted his research for many
Today, NO helps increase the chances for survival of premature infants
with low birth weights. It also plays a role in inducing male sexual
function, helps gene regulation, aids the delivery of oxygen by
haemoglobin and assists the immune system, among its many applications.
Nitric oxide, known prior to 1986 primarily as a precursor of
atmospheric 'acid rain' and as a toxic component of cigarette smoke, is
now understood to act as a biological messenger. This, said Murad,
helped confirm that many cells in the body 'talk' to one another,
almost like computers wired to the Internet.
'Brain cells talk to other cells, we call [the messengers] hormones
there are hundreds and hundreds of these hormones,' said Murad.
Murad said government support for private research is one of the best
investments any nation can make. He said the US government contributes
nearly half of the US$60 billion to $70 billion (Bt2.3 trillion-Bt2.7
trillion) spent in the country on medical research, while the private
sector funds the rest.
Murad, who chairs the Department of Integrative Biology, Pharmacology
and Physiology at the University of Texas-Houston said that without
such a commitment, people would end up paying a premium to buy medical
technology from other countries.