Origin of life



The problem of explaining the origin of life cannot sensibly be

separated from understanding the organization of the biosphere today.

This is a complicated project, because modern life is organized at

many scales according to many kinds of structure and interaction.  It

employs chemical, physical-chemical, geometric, and dynamical

organization.  It uses rich systems of memory and control, which

apparently emerged spontaneously and are self-maintaining.  It

introduces new concepts seldom or never required in the sub-living

world, such as individuality and replication, and new oppositions,

such as organism/environment and individual/ecosystem.  Through these

many levels of structure, it introduces unprecedented opportunities

for persistent variation, and with this, a pervasive role for

historical contingency.  Explaining the emergence and persistence of a

biosphere on earth requires answering, for each of these forms of

order, "Why is there something instead of nothing?".

For biochemistry, part of the answer may be that the core small

molecules and reactions of life are part of self-organized

geochemistry, around which more complex structure accreted in stages

to constitute the transition to fully complex life.  The deep core of

biochemistry, including 300 or so small molecules and the pathways to

synthesize them, is universal throughout known life -- but only at the

ecosystem level -- individual species may implement some of the

reactions and draw from others through the proxy of organic food.  The

major innovations affecting this network, such as nitrogen fixation

and various forms of photosynthesis, constitute the major chemical

transitions in evolution.  It may be that universal aspects of

biochemistry at the ecosystem level, rather than properties associated

with individuality and replication, reflect the intermediate stages

between lifeless geochemistry and the chemical foundations for the

rest of living complexity.


NSF FIBR grant

SFI website for FIBR

A news article


Harold Morowitz

Shelley Copley

George Cody

Rogier Braakman

Nigel Goldenfeld

John Baross

David Krakauer

Jessica Flack

Walter Fontana