Recently I had the honor of speaking at the Origin of Life conference organized by the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science. It was an exciting and humbling experience.
Being a relative newcomer to this research area, I suddenly found myself surrounded by some of the giants of the field. What better way to learn than from the experts themselves? Although one of those giants (Steve Benner) did say that "when it comes to the origin of life, there are no experts."
This message was teased out by others at the meeting, as well. Not only is there no consensus yet on how life might have started on Earth, there is not even any agreement on where it started. Hypotheses presented at the meeting included:
- life was brought to Earth from outer space by meteorites
- life started around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor
- life originated in shallow volcanic/sulfuric rock pools
- life first appeared on the clay surfaced ocean shores exposed to tidal wet-dry cycles
- life came into being at sub-freezing temperatures on a snowball Earth
Equally varied were the topics of the many presentations at the gathering. They included: pure geochemistry and biochemistry (including various hypotheses about which elements were likely to have been abundant on the early Earth); the limits of life as we know it now (in terms of temperature, pH, pressure, salinity, etc.); attempts at reconstructing (aspects of) the last universal common ancestor (LUCA); the RNA world (a hotly debated topic); protein evolution and functionality; computer simulations of chemical systems; and even a purely information-based approach, in the tradition of earlier giants like Alan Turing and John von Neumann.
My own talk was on a formal framework for studying the emergence and evolution of autocatalytic sets, largely based on the original ideas of 13.7's own Stuart Kauffman (a giant who, unfortunately, could not be at the conference himself).
What also became clear at the Princeton meeting, however, is that, despite the current lack of consensus on how or where life started, there is a growing optimism that the problem will actually be solved in the near future. Estimates range anywhere from 10 to 50 years from now. No one seemed to doubt that the answer is within reach.
Indeed, the maelstrom of theory and research represented at the conference is showing signs of coalescing into a clear way forward. More and more of the gaps and details are filling in with each year that passes. And in the process we are learning ever more about life in general, not just its origin.
Some of the research even leads to new technologies. For example, the work of David Deamer (another giant!) has led to the development of a $900 mobile-phone-sized DNA sequencer that plugs into the USB port of your laptop. And, of course, great medical advances are likely to flow from our deeper understanding of life's origin and its early evolution.
Despite the prevalent optimism, it was also clear that we still have significant hurdles to overcome. Which reminds me of a wonderful anecdote Bill Martin (yet another giant) told the audience during his lecture. A few years ago, Bill had been one of several researchers invited to speak to the Pontifical Council on the origin of life. After he had explained to them how we — as scientists — are trying to understand how the (spontaneous) transition from pure chemistry to living cells might have happened, one of the cardinals asked him: "Wouldn't a little bit of God help there, Dr. Martin?"
Yes, science would be a lot easier if we were allowed to simply insert "a little bit of God" here and there. But then it would also be a lot less interesting and exciting, no?
Guest contributor Wim Hordijk is a computer scientist working in the areas of computational biology, evolutionary computation, bioinformatics and (more recently) the origin of life. You can keep up with Wim via his website: www.WorldWideWanderings.net