Upcoming Powwows Reframe Origin of Life

Paul Higgs - 2
(l to r) PAUL HIGGS, RALPH PUDRITZ, MAIKEL RHEINSTADTER at McMaster’s Origins Institute

“There is this general question when the science experiment ends.  Peter Galison has written a book, How Experiments End. Nothing is ever proven in science. At some point the community decides this is no longer the most pressing problem.  That’s it.  The investigation moves on from this to that.”—Steve Benner in conversation with me at Princeton, 2013, The Origin of Life Circus: A How To Make Life Extravaganza

The problem with the origin of life investigation was neatly summed up in two recent articles.  One was published in Life, co-authored by University of Wisconsin-Parkside chemistry professor Vera Kolb, a former protégé of legends Stanley Miller and Leslie Orgel.  The other paper appeared in Nature, co-authored by MRC chemist John Sutherland, a co-coordinator of the Simons Collaboration on Origins of Life (SCOL), and with Matt Powner, winner of Harry Lonsdale’s Origin of Life Challenge in 2012.  Kolb and Sutherland are both on the same page in their assessments of origin of life.

John Sutherland:  “It follows that the sequence of events that led to life must have been highly contingent and the origin of life as we know it could have been a low probability event.”

Vera Kolb: “We proposed the “comet pond” model as a way to create such a pond, even though it would be a very low probability event due to the challenges of landing pristine cometary material. . . .Nonetheless, some organic molecules are expected to survive in their original form.  Over time, with large numbers of cometary impact, a significant inventory of organic material may be delivered.  However, because comets did strike the planetary surface in a stochastic manner, there is a vanishingly low probability of two or more comets impacting the same area in a geologically short time interval.”

With that as backdrop—there are three relevant chats about origin(s) of life scheduled in the next few months.  The first conference, opening June 24 at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, is  being called “Science of Early Life.”  Why the downgrade from origin(s) to early life?  Does it signal that the caravan has already moved on?  

The Canadian event (admission C$520) was organized by biophysicist Paul Higgs and colleagues at McMaster’s Origins Institute.  Paul Higgs was—along with Portland State University chemistry professor Niles Lehman —a Lonsdale Origin of Life Challenge research grantee.

What would Harry say about the Canadian event being framed as “Early Life”?  Lonsdale considered his role in the origin(s) investigation “the second biggest thrill” of his life. With Lonsdale’s death in 2014, the investigation may indeed have lost its most enthusiastic supporter.

Lynn Rothschild is the McMaster event’s keynote speaker. That’s Lynn J. Rothschild, the astrobiologist at NASA Ames married to NASA Ames research scientist Rocco Mancinelli—not to be confused with Lynn de Rothschild, former wife of Andy Stein now married to Sir Evelyn de Rothschild.  

LJ Rothschild is also a biology professor at Boston University as well as at UC-Santa Cruz, and co-founding editor of the journal Astrobiology.  Rothschild has recently said on one of NASA’s online sites: “Charles Darwin always inspires me.”  Will Rothschild stick to the Darwinian script in her upcoming McMaster talk: “Towards a universal biology”?

Big-name presenters include:  Dave Deamer, Steve Benner, Dimitar Sasselov, Irene Chen, Sukrit Ranjan and Andrei Lupas.

Also significant is CAS Conference 2018 on “Recreating the Origins of Life,” a meeting, taking place in Munich, Germany, October 11-12 at Literaturhaus Munchen, organized by Ludwig-Maximilians University biophysicist Dieter Braun.  The event is partly funded by the Simons Foundation.  Braun is part of the Simons Collaboration on Origins of Life. 

Some of the meeting’s notable speakers are Matt Powner, Dimitar Sasselov, Irene Chen, Philip Hollinger, Andrei Lupas, Niles Lehman, Sheref Mansy, Stephen Mojzsis, Robert Pascal—several of these SCOL members.

It is disappointing to see a reference to Darwinian evolution in the promo for the Munich event: “How can Darwinian evolution emerge?”  Disappointing because Dieter Braun told me months ago  in our HuffPost interview:  “We’re getting a good corps of people now who are reshaping the field in a completely new way.” 

I assumed from the HP conversation that meant letting go of Darwinian natural selection: 

Suzan Mazur:  One of the problems in funding origins research is that it still seems largely angled to Darwinian evolution, which has been seriously challenged over the last decade. . . . There seems to be a need for new terminology, new language in the field to describe this.  Selection isn’t an accurate description.

Dieter Braun:  That’s a big difficulty in the field, absolutely.  Selection, if I say that to biologists, to physicists, to chemists, it has completely different meanings to each. . . .  It would be a great advantage to have more precise language.  We will find this as we continue to communicate across disciplines,  In the end, experiments will be our common language.”

Another issue with the CAS conference promo is its peculiar arrogance: 

“Only the combined effort from renowned experts from various disciplines can be successful in retracing the origins of life under experimental conditions and pave the way towards answering some of the most pertinent questions:  how did the very first genetic material in lifeforms develop?”

Such a claim runs contrary to comments by:

Freeman Dyson:  “We are all equally ignorant when it comes to origin of life.”

Steve Benner: “There are no experts.”


Bob Hazen: “We’ve got to draw the circle wider. Even the idea of a professional scientist versus a knowledgeable reader. There’s a continuum here.  And we’re all part of this search for trying to understand where we come from and who we are.”

With some of the €19 million in funding from the Dutch government awarded for synthetic cell development, scientists in The Netherlands have organized the “1st International Symposium on Building a Synthetic Cell.”  The event takes place in South Holland at Delft University of Technology, August 28-29.  Key speakers include: Bert Poolman, Matthias Heinemann, John Sutherland, Eugene Koonin, Michael Jewett and Eors Szathmary, among others.

I traveled to The Netherlands last October and met with scientists at the Dutch Origins Center, headquartered (virtually) at the University of Groningen.  One of them, Bert Poolman, a principal of the Dutch synthetic cell development team, said their reason for building the cell was to “better understand biology.”  Poolman said further:

Bert Poolman:  We received a grant of  €19 million from the Netherlands Science Foundation last summer for our synthetic cell development project.  The award went to 15 working groups—15 groups working in this area is substantial.  We will probably appoint 30-80 PhD students.  But some of our labs also have national grants and so the 15 groups could each include 10 to 20 researchers.

The 15 PIs have already individually been working on aspects of synthetic cell development.  But for the first time there is proper funding for tackling larger scale problems.

Suzan Mazur:  Why are you developing a synthetic cell?

Bert Poolman:  The reason for us is basically to better understand biology. . . .

Suzan Mazur:  How close at this point are you to making the synthetic cell?

Bert Poolman:  We’re still decades away.  This has to do with the middle part, what I call information processing.  The most difficult aspect is probably protein synthesis because protein synthesis involves more than 100 components.  And to build a ribosome in vitro, from scratch, that is an enormous challenge.

So information is stored in DNA—although it could also be something else—it doesn’t have to be DNA.  We need to replicate it because that’s something necessary for life. DNA is replicated to make a copy of itself for the daughter cell when a cell divides.  But DNA also needs to be decoded or ‘read’ to make new proteins.  This is something that all living cells do and that we try to reconstitute from molecular components, which is extremely difficult because of the many molecules involved, their complex assembly, and lots of processes we do not understand yet.”

Missing from all three events is Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, who announced at World Science Festival 2014 he’d have “life in lab” in three years. Harvard astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov predicted five. . .

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