Noted synthetic life researcher Steven Benner of Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME) is fond of pointing out that gooey tars are the end product of too many experiments in his field. His widely-held view is that the tars, made out of chemicals known to be important in the origin of life, are nonetheless a dead end to be avoided when trying to work out how life began.
But in the changing world of origins of life research, others are asking whether those messy tars might not be a breeding ground for the origin of life, rather than an obstacle to it.
One of those is chemist and astrobiologist Irena Mamajanov of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo. As she recently explained during an institute symposium, scientists know that tar-like substances were present on early Earth, and that she and her colleagues are now aggressively studying their potential role in the prebiotic chemical transformations that ultimately allowed life to emerge out of non-life.
“We call what we do messy chemistry, and we think it can help shed light on some important processes that make life possible.”
It stands to reason that the gunky tar played a role, she said, because tars allow some essential processes to occur: They can concentrate compounds, it can encapsulate them, and they could provide a kind of primitive (messy) scaffolding that could eventually evolve into the essential backbones of a living entity.
“Scientists in the field have tended to think of the origin of life as a process going from simple to more complex, but we think it may have gone from very complex — messy — to more structured.”
Mamajanov is part of an unusual Japanese and international group gathered at (ELSI), a relatively new site on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology. It is dedicated to origin of life and origin of Earth study, with a mandate to be interdisciplinary and to think big and outside the box.… Read more