Origin of Life Fever & Dave Deamer’s Tips on Assembling Life

Dave Deamer 2

It isn’t mentioned in his new book, Assembling Life—“written for the scientific community”—but origin-of-life wise man David Deamer was the person who first encouraged philanthropist Harry Lonsdale in 2011 to support origin of life research.  Deamer, a professor at University of California-Santa Cruz whose PhD is in physical chemistry, was at the time also president of ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life and Astrobiology).

harrylonsdale 2

Lonsdale took Deamer’s advice and threw $2M into a contest for the best proposals detailing “first life” and then announced his “Origin of Life Challenge” in leading science magazines. He received 76 papers and began awarding money to the winning research teams in 2012. Lonsdale later told me the Challenge was the “second biggest thrill” of his life. 

The contest kicked off a kind of fever, an origin-of-life research fever, that is now a worldwide phenomenon.

Although Deamer does note that his work from 2012-2015 was “generously supported” by Lonsdale, he doesn’t specifically come out and say in his new book that he headed the panel that reviewed the Origin of Life Challenge papers nor that he and his research team were one of the three teams awarded research money.

Deamer book

Deamer told me in a 2014 interview for my book The Origin of Life Circus: A How To Make Life Extravaganza that he recused himself when his own paper was being reviewed.  


Nevertheless, there are few scientists who have been as dedicated for as long as Dave Deamer has been in chasing the origin of life problem—today seen largely as a technical problem.  His investigations of prebiotics first appeared in Nature in 1977 and in 1985 he began testing organic compounds from the Murchison meteorite.  He added water and watched the material self-assemble into fluorescent vesicular structures.

In his new book, Deamer graciously acknowledges his collaboration with two dozen scientists over the years, and another two dozen whose company he’s enjoyed at various professional meetings—which, I was told, would include at least one hot tub discussion. 

Speaking of hot springs, Deamer favors the hydrothermal fields origin of life hypothesis, noting:

“Although most of the Earth’s water was in the ocean, volcanism produced island land masses on which precipitation fed hydrothermal fields consisting of freshwater cycling within hot springs, geysers, and evaporating pools.”

He thinks life could have emerged at spots like today’s Yellowstone National Park or Kamchatka in Hawaii, places where “organic material can accumulate” rather than in an ocean of liquid water where organic material would be diluted.

Deamer also sees the ocean at life’s origin too salty for vesicles to form, so he is not particularly keen on the hydrothermal vents hypothesis. 

In any event, Deamer says:

“[T]he history of life on Earth began when the first liquid water fell to the hot surface of a cooling magma ocean.”

He identifies planetismals during primary accretion as the source of all of Earth’s “biogenic elements” as well as its major source of water.      

And he lays out 18 physical, chemical and emergent processes that must take place for life to begin, claiming that so far “None of the published simulations [including those of Miller, Szostak, Orgel, Joyce, Sydney Fox, Noireaux & Libchaber (partial list)] is sufficiently complex!”.

Following is Deamer’s list of processes that must happen for a living system to emerge from organic compounds:







chemical energy

condensation reactions


kinetic traps

catalytic & autocatalytic activity [???]

hill climbing




selection [???]

combinatorial selection [???]


Assembling Life is a valuable book for serious researchers of origin of life.  But oy yoi, yoi, yoi!—why is Dave Deamer still quoting Darwin?

darwin overthrown - final - front cover



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