119 Re-Conceptualizing the Origins of Life

Re-Conceptualizing the Origins of Life

Carnegie Institution for Science
Washington, DC
November 9th-13th, 2015

While physics and chemistry have provided a deep understanding of the non-living world, biology remains a field steeped in the mysteries of complex emergent phenomena. The origin of biology has been a recalcitrant problem almost since the birth of modern science. The question of whether we can reach deeper scientific insights into biology and its origin was recently the focus of a meeting which brought together ~80 scientists from the fields of biology, chemistry, computer science, history, paleontology, physics and many others at the Carnegie Institution for Science (CIS) headquarters in Washington, DC. The meeting took place only a few blocks from the White House during what proved to be an exceptionally pleasant November in DC.

Key questions and core concepts about the origin of life on Earth, the organization of the biosphere, and the nature of the living state were discussed. The conference was the outgrowth of a grassroots movement called "Modeling Origins of Life" (MOL for short), which ELSI's own Piet Hut instigated with a series of informal workshops organized at the Institute for Advanced Study in the US and ELSI in Japan in 2014. This meeting aimed to explore ways to build a deeper understanding of the nature of biology by modeling the origins of life on an abstract level, examining the origin of life in the larger context of the origins of organization, including major transitions in the history of biology and structure formation in complex systems.

Since the origin of life should mark the departure from the predictable worlds of chemistry and physics to the novelty-generating and history-dependent living world, the participants hoped to hone in on which aspects of this transition are most ripe for computational and experimental investigation and explanation. During four and a half days filled with cutting-edge lectures, poster sessions and lively conversation, topics as wide-ranging as the patterns behind Wikipedia page-editing, swarm dynamics, laboratory approaches to investigating earlier biochemical states, and synthetic self-organizing chemical systems were discussed.

The meeting was punctuated by a public lecture delivered by Bob Hazen, who managed to absolutely pack the CIS auditorium with DC locals (which is no small feat, it's quite large - I was surprised and delighted to see the level of public interest!). Professor Hazen delivered a lively lecture examining Jacques Monod's notions of "Chance and Necessity" from the standpoint of mineralogy, asking the question of which minerals we might expect Earth to harbor if, echoing Stephen J. Gould, the "tape were replayed," and coming to the conclusion that most of them would form again robustly, but a large number of "accessory" minerals might not, perhaps being replaced with others. He extended this discussion to wider questions of the origins of life, and whether the phenomenon should be considered wholly deterministic or wholly a product of happenstance. He described how the enormous surface area of the Earth and the large amount of time available would have allowed for some 1050 molecular-scale chemical "experiments" which could have culminated in the origin of life. Thus perhaps the Earth (and by extension other Earth-like planets) can be considered as a giant life-generating "computer," capable of making the discovery of even the most improbable phenomena computationally tractable.

It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces and meet so many new people approaching this most difficult question. For me, the meeting, and MOL in general, have been a breath of fresh air, and timed serendipitously to coincide with a "major transition" in my own work: the publication of our book on the history of efforts to understand the origin of life. Since well before I was born, the group of people actively investigating the origins of life "full-time" has been fairly small. Our cohort has always been mostly composed of "dabblers" - most scientists who have worked on the question have focused their research on other, more tractable, and more fundable, topics. This is not surprising. Until recently, funding for origins research has been relatively scanty for several reasons. Most scientific funding sources (with a few recent exceptions) have historically viewed the question of the origins of life as intractable, too poorly understood to be seriously addressed by science, or too conflictive with certain religious sensibilities to be publicly funded. The problem has also always competed with a large number of extremely important, more pressing and more obviously solvable problems: cancer, climate change, atomic weapons, space exploration, infectious disease, autism, world hunger, renewable energy... the list goes on. The origin of life has patiently waited in the wings, unexplained, in dire, but not-so-urgent need of solution.

We can now seriously hope to not only make a dent in this question, and perhaps also resolve it at a considerably deeper level than the one we have for decades been satisfied with. For example, until relatively recently the dialectic of whether life began in hydrothermal vents with a self-organizing metabolism or in an evaporating pond with an RNA World was status quo intro material for a considerable amount of research in this area. These questions were well-posed, but they can now be superseded by more detailed ones: what types of chemistry allow for the creation of open-endedly evolvable systems (acknowledging that there could be multiple solutions to the question, and that both natural and non-natural, including in silico systems might be capable of making this transition)? How do the dynamics of these systems evolve? At what point and how do these systems become autonomous? At what point and how do these systems become so robust they begin to modify the environments which engendered them, dynamically reconfiguring the playing fields on which they operate?

There is an enormous amount of talent working on these problems right now, the people working on them are coming at them from many interesting angles, and I think truly important and surprising conceptual and experimental advances are being made. I hope the idea of "Re-Conceptualizing the Origins of Life" will become a ritual we will re-enact "every so often" from now on, at least until we no longer feel there are deep questions regarding these phenomena which require explanation. Perhaps the origin of life will one day soon be like plate tectonics or (fill in the scientific problem which has been "resolved" here!). Until then, MOL and friends will be hard at work.