The Origins of Life

Seven Pines Symposium XV

May 18-22, 2011
The Outing Lodge, Stillwater, Minnesota

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The last three decades have seen enormous progress on one of the great questions of science, viz., the understanding of the way life originated on earth, and how it might emerge elsewhere. This work has relied essentially on modern microbiology, but has also required insights from astronomy and astrophysics, and from the earth sciences. Some of the central questions raised by the topic include

(i) What kind of conditions were required on the early earth to allow the formation of the complex molecules which led to life; and what conditions have been necessary to maintain an increasingly complex biosphere on earth since then? How many planets are likely to have such conditions, and where and how should we look? And what were the early stages of life on earth?

(ii) What role was played by the early 'RNA world" in the evolution of early life on earth? How inevitable is it that some analogue of this (presumably carbon-based) be involved in the evolution of life elsewhere? And what other kinds of life can be set up based on RNA? And what is the new world of 'synthetic biology' revealing to us about the possibilities that are open to life?

(iii) What does the effort to answer these questions tell us about life itself? In what way is this question too restricted - and if we ask more general questions about, eg., the origin of complexity on earth or elsewhere, what implications does this have for biology? And what notion of complexity should we be using?

Naturally these questions raise more general ones about how one should proceed in pursuing questions for which there is so little data, and where many of the canonical methods of science seem inapplicable. Central beliefs in biology, which have grown out of the study of life on earth, are brought into question, and some would argue that the question of the 'Origin of Life" is itself ill-posed. The historical background to this is interesting, involving not only the history of biology from before Darwin, but also contemporary ideological battles, which can even influence the way the questions are formulated.