Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Because they take a little nip/ From ev'ry flower that they sip

"How sweet it is," said Jackie Gleason. Indeed. As I write, I am sitting in a quiet corner of the college Commons munching on a breakfast roll slathered with sugary frosting. Yum!

Hey, I make no apologies. Sugar is a key ingredient of all life on Earth and has been since the beginning.

We don't know where the earliest living organisms came from, but we have a pretty good idea how they made their living.

They took sugar molecules from their environment and broke them apart, rearranging the atoms into smaller molecules of carbon dioxide and alcohol, a process called fermentation. Some of the energy stored in the sugar molecule is released, and fueled the first life on Earth.

The seas were sweet in those days, a kind of dilute Kool-Aid, and the first organisms fed on this sweet elixir.

Where did the sugar come from? Most likely, it was brewed up by plain old non-biological chemistry. The early Earth was crackling with electrical storms and bathed with ultraviolet light from the Sun, and apparently used this energy to synthesize its sweets.

As life exploded exponentially, it was inevitable that the sugar would run out, dooming fermentation. But before this happened, some microbes evolved the ability to make their own sugar, using sunlight. With photosynthesis, life freed itself from scrounging ready-made sugars from the environment.

But we never lost our sweet tooth. Tell me about it.