Life before genetics: autogenesis, information, and the outer solar system


Details

Date
Tuesday, May 14 2013 - 12:00 pm, PDT
Speaker
Terrence W. Deacon
Affiliation
Anthropology Department, UC Berkeley
Description

moon of giant gas planetThe investigation of the origins of life has been hindered by what we think we know about current living organisms. This includes three assumptions about necessary conditions: 1) that it emerged entirely on Earth, 2) that it is dependent on the availability of liquid water, and 3) that it is coextensive with the emergence of molecules able to replicate themselves.

In addition, the three most widely explored alternative general models for a molecular process that could serve as a precursor to life also reflect reductionistically-envisioned fragments of current living systems: e.g. container-first, metabolism-first, or information-first scenarios. Finally, we are hindered by a technical concept of information that is fundamentally incomplete in precisely ways that are critical to characterizing living processes.

These all reflect reductionistic "top-down" approaches to the extent that they begin with a reverse-engineering view of what constitutes a living Earth-organism and explore possible re-compositional scenarios. This is a Frankensteinian enterprise that also begins with assumptions that are highly Earth-life specific and therefore unlikely to lead to a general exo-biology.

The approach Dr. Deacon will outline instead begins from an unstated conundrum about the origins of life. The initial transition to a life-like process necessarily exemplified two almost inconceivably incompatible properties: 1) it must have involved exceedingly simple molecular interactions, and 2) it must have embodied a thermodynamic organization with the unprecedented capacity to locally compensate for spontaneous thermodynamic degradation as well as to stabilize one or more intrinsically self-destroying self-organizing processes.

This talk will explore the origins of life problem by attempting to identify the necessary and sufficient molecular relationships able to embody these two properties. From this perspective Dr. Deacon will develop a model system - autogenesis - that redefines biological information and opens the search for life's origin to cosmic and planetary contexts seldom considered.

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