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 years.

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.

Pravit Rojanaphruk