Origin of life experts might find inspiration at CERN

“How did life appear on Earth?” That was the unanswered question on attendees’ minds at a single-day workshop held at CERN, 20 May. The brainstorming session featured experts from the biology field and CERN physicists. Although the million-dollar question wasn't answered, the group explored the possibility of organising a large-scale research project that could do just that.


Darwin’s vision of "descent with modification" from his "B" notebook.

According to workshop chair Stuart Kauffman, an American theoretical biologist, currently Finland Distinguished Professor (FiDiPro) at the Tampere University of Technology: “The Origin of Life problem began with Louis Pasteur, who refused to believe in the ‘spontaneous generation principle’ of life. All life, he said, comes from life. This left Pasteur in a conundrum: how did life start in the first place?” As a renowned expert in complexity of biological systems and organisms, Kauffman is one of the best minds studying this still unanswered question.

Yet the focus of the workshop was not exactly the emergence of protolife, but the organisational difficulties that seem to affect the field’s progress. “If we do not organise our field we are in danger of drifting into scattered, uncoordinated groups that make little progress,” says Kauffman. “By coordinating our efforts, we believe we can make more rapid strides.” Along with a group of international Origin of Life scientists, Kauffman has begun addressing this organisational issue. They need a growing team of scientists who can collaborate while conducting appropriately diverse research, thus avoiding being trapped by any single idea.

At CERN, scientists from more than 100 different countries work together and produce results that are then shared with the world. Although the specific activities are very different, the biochemists are hoping that some of CERN’s organisational success will rub off on them. “We are happy to share how we plan large-scale experiments and how we work together with our colleagues in other research fields,” says Markus Nordberg, ATLAS resources co-ordinator and co-organiser of the Origin of Life brainstorming workshop. “We hope to inspire their approach to finding the large-scale resources that the fundamental scientific questions require.”

“Technically, the time is ripe for an international group to coordinate, tackle and solve the problem of the emergence of protolife,” concludes Kauffman. “With its successful organisational model, CERN has showed us how a distributed collaboration can produce coherent efforts. The whole event was extremely inspiring for our community.” Famous organic chemist Albert Eschenmoser once remarked: “the best minds in chemistry should now enter the Origin of Life field.” With these “best minds” already on board, and a bit of inspiration from CERN, the group could be close to solving Pasteur’s riddle.

For further details about the Origins of Life Workshop, click here.

by Katarina Anthony & Anaïs Schaeffer