RE-CONCEPTUALIZING THE ORIGIN OF LIFE
A Meeting in Washington, DC, November 9-13, 2015.
To listen to people speaking at this conference, one would gather that there are three basic questions for which we have no answer:
- Why is there anything?
- How did life start?
- What is consciousness?
The problem we have been working on, embryogenesis, is regarded as basically solved by incanting “gene regulatory networks”, which to my surprise were invoked by two speakers talking on origin of life. They were both colleagues of Eric H. Davidson, who just died last September. The problem with the gene regulatory network approach to embryogenesis is that it does not account for the division of most organisms into cells, and cannot predict the spatial and time course of embryogenesis. The networks do exist within cells, but are components, the regulons, a term we coined in Embryogenesis Explained, rather than the whole show.
The idea that a cell is a well stirred bag of chemicals harkens back to the beginnings of biochemistry a century ago, which followed upon regular chemistry. We were always taught to thoroughly mix the contents of our beakers, to get chemical reactions to occur stoichiometrically. The teflon coated magnetic stirring bar became the icon of this approach. The very notion that chemical reactions in the real world occur in heterogeneous conditions was not taught. At best, one might get introduced in advanced stages of academic training to “surface chemistry” as an esoteric subject. Even here, the surfaces had to be chemically clean. The contrast could be seen in the fine lecture by Robert Hazen
on the role of minerals in the origin (and evolution) of life. In his lab reactions are run on atomically clean, known surfaces of crystals. He did remark that such pristine crystals on an early Earth or exoplanet might be gunked up and thus have a problematic role to play. But we must start somewhere, control what we can, and hope that it is relevant to the larger problem.
So aside from mineral or membrane surfaces, there was no structure assumed at this meeting for the origin of life. The problem was posited as one of getting from a “tar” of materials produced in interstellar space and found in meteorites, with tens of thousands of organic compounds, down to the relatively few involved in living organisms. Even self-reproduction was phrased in terms of autocatalytic reaction schemes, more than in terms of the division mechanism(s) of protocells.
Our host, in whose driveway we parked and lived in our trailer, Stephen M. Levin, attended the conference for two days. Steve is a retired orthopedic surgeon who has pioneered the concept of biotensegrity
as applying to all levels of structure in biology. To his disappointment there wasn’t a smidgen of biotensegrity offered there in any of the attempts to figure out the origin of life. I mulled it over, concluded he was right, and began discussing FtsZ, the chain molecule involved in prokaryote (bacterial) cell division with him and Natalie. Soon we started looking at the self-reproduction of centrioles, which contain microtubules, which were evolutionarily derived from FtsZ. Maybe we’re onto something.
The conference was organized by Sara Imari Walker
who quite openly spoke about the need for new ideas on the origin of life, saying that 50% of the participants were different from those generally encountered at origin of life meetings. Indeed, I haven’t attended an origin of life meeting since about 1975. The Carnegie Institute of Washington hosted it, and kept us well fed with plenty of opportunities for interaction. George Cody
of CWI gave a great opening talk and raised the money that paid for everything. It was a privilege to be there, get up to date, and meet enthusiastic scientists, many born after 1975.
Monday, November 9, 2015 – 8:00am to Friday, November 13, 2015 – 3:00pm
“Hosted by the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Washington D.C. from the 9th to the 11th of November 2015, this conference aims to explore ways to build a deeper understanding of the nature of biology, by focusing on modelling the origins of life on a sufficiently abstract level. The conference will cover a diverse range of topics bearing on the problem of solving life’s origins, starting from prebiotic conditions on Earth and possibly on other planets and moving up through the hierarchy of structure in biology all the way to social complexity. The focus is therefore on studying the origin of life as part of a larger concern with the origins of organization, including major transitions in the living state and structure formation in complex systems science.”
Dick, Natalie and Stephen M. Levin who, with his wife Olga, kindly hosted us for the two weeks we were in DC. Olga took the picture. Steve is holding one of his tensegrity models.