Where is the Origin of Life on Earth?

SETI Talks

Tags: SETI Talks, Astrobiology

Time: Wednesday, Apr 17, 2019 -

Location: SRI International, 333 Ravenswood Ave, Menlo Park, CA 94025

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To answer the iconic question “Are We Alone?”, scientists around the world are also attempting to understand the origin of life. There are many pieces to the puzzle of how life began and many ways to put them together into a big picture. Some of the pieces are firmly established by the laws of chemistry and physics. Others are conjectures about what Earth was like four billion years ago, based on extrapolations of what we know from observing Earth today. However, there are still major gaps in our knowledge and these are necessarily filled in by best guesses.

We invited talented scientists to discuss their different opinions about the origin of life and the site of life’s origin. Most of them will agree that liquid water was necessary, but if we had a time machine and went back in time, would we find life first in a hydrothermal submarine setting in sea water or a fresh water site associated with emerging land masses?

Biologist David Deamer, a Research Professor of Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and multi-disciplinary scientist Bruce Damer, Associate Researcher in the Department of Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz, will describe their most recent work, which infers that hydrothermal pools are the most plausible site for the origin of life. Both biologists have been collaborating since 2016 on a full conception of the Terrestrial Origin of Life Hypothesis.

Lynn Rothschild, Senior Scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center and Adjunct Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University, who is an astrobiologist/ synthetic biologist specializing in molecular approaches to evolution, particularly in microbes and the application of synthetic biology to NASA's missions, will provide an evolutionary biologist’s perspective on the subject.

David Deamer is a Research Professor of Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Deamer received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Duke University in 1961, and PhD in physiological chemistry at the Ohio State University School of Medicine, 1965. Over his scientific career, Deamer has maintained a central focus on biological and synthetic membranes. In 1989, Deamer proposed the idea that it could be possible to sequence a DNA molecule by passing it through a nanoscopic pore embedded in a lipid bilayer membrane. Deamer, Daniel Branton (Harvard University), and John Kasianowitz (NIST) demonstrated the feasibility of this concept in 1996. Collaborative work with Mark Akeson at UC Santa Cruz reported proof of principle in 1999 when they showed that a nanopore could distinguish between sequences of adenine and cytosine in RNA. In 2014, Oxford Nanopore Technology developed  and distributed the MinION device which utilizes nanopore sequencing concepts developed by the Akeson and Deamer research groups.

In a second research area, Deamer investigates how primitive amphiphilic compounds could have encapsulated polymer systems to give rise to the first living cells. In 1985, he showed that lipid-like compounds in carbonaceous meteorites can self-assemble into membranous vesicles, making it plausible that such vesicles were present on the prebiotic Earth. Deamer was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 to work with Murchison meteorite samples at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is currently using nanopore biosensors to detect nucleic acid polymers synthesized in a robotic device that simulates prebiotic conditions. Deamer is the author or co-author of 200 research papers and review articles and the author/editor of 12 books, including Origins of Life (2010), co-edited with Jack Szostak,  First Life (2011) published by UC Press, and Assembling Life (2019) published by Oxford University Press.  His research has been featured in NOVA and National Geographic programs related to artificial life and the origin of life. A cover article in the August 2017 Scientific American described a hypothetical scenario about how life could begin on a habitable planet like the early Earth. The hypothesis has a foundation in laboratory experiments and observations in volcanic hydrothermal conditions and is a joint effort of Deamer and Bruce Damer.

Bruce Frederick Damer, PhD, is Canadian-American multi-disciplinary scientist, designer, and author. Damer collaborates with colleagues developing and testing a new model for the origin of life on Earth and in the design of spacecraft architectures to provide a viable path for expansion of human civilization beyond the Earth. He began his career in the 1980s developing some of the earliest user interfaces for personal computers, led a community in the 1990s bringing the first multi-user virtual worlds to the Internet, and since 2000 has supported NASA and the space industry on numerous simulations and spacecraft designs. He has spent 25 years chronicling the history of computing in his DigiBarn Computer Museum and curates archives of counterculture figures such as Dr. Timothy Leary, Terence McKenna, and others. He currently serves as Principal Scientist at DigitalSpace; Associate Researcher in the Department of Biomolecular Engineering at UC Santa Cruz; Associate of the NASA Astrobiology Center; Member of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life; and Founding Director of the Contact Consortium. He also served as Visiting Scholar at the University of Washington and as a member of the Faculty at Charles University, Prague. He received his PhD from University College, Dublin; MSEE from the University of Southern California, and BSc from the University of Victoria.

Lynn Rothschild is passionate about the origin and evolution of life on Earth or elsewhere while at the same time pioneering the use of synthetic biology to enable space exploration.  Just as travel abroad permits new insights into home, so too the search for life elsewhere allows a more mature scientific, philosophical, and ethical perception of life on Earth. She wears several hats as a senior scientist NASA’s Ames Research Center and Bio and Bio-Inspired Technologies, Research and Technology Lead for NASA Headquarters Space Technology Mission Directorate, as well as Adjunct Professor at Brown University. She received her undergraduate degree in biology from Yale University, Masters in zoology from Indiana University, and Ph.D. in molecular, cell and biochemistry from Brown University. Her research has focused on how life, particularly microbes, has evolved in the context of the physical environment, both here and potentially elsewhere. She founded and ran the first three Astrobiology Science Conferences (AbSciCon), was the founding co-editor of the International Journal of Astrobiology, and is the former director of the Astrobiology Strategic Analysis and Support Office for NASA.  Astrobiology research includes examining a protein-based scenario for the origin of life, hunting for the most radiation-resistant organisms, and determining signatures for life on extrasolar planets. More recently, Rothschild has brought her creativity to the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, articulating a vision for the future of synthetic biology as an enabling technology for NASA’s missions, including human space exploration and astrobiology. Since 2011, she has been the faculty advisor of the award-winning Stanford-Brown iGEM team, which has pioneered the use of synthetic biology to accomplish NASA’s missions, particularly focusing on the human settlement of Mars, astrobiology, and such innovative technologies as BioWires, making a biodegradable UAS (drone), and a bioballoon.  Her lab is testing these plans in space on in the PowerCell synthetic biology secondary payload on a DLR satellite, EuCROPIS, launched in December 2018. She is a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Explorer’s Club. In 2015, she was awarded the Isaac Asimov Award from the American Humanist Association and was the recipient of the Horace Mann Award from Brown University. She has been a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) fellow three times, most recently in 2018. She frequently appears on documentaries, TV, and radio, and lectures worldwide, including Windsor Castle, ComiCon and the Vatican.