Programme & Abstracts
Updated Programme (16th April 2012)
Abstracts for the talks listed below can be found in the updated programme documents (see left navigation panel).
|Tuesday 1 May|
|10:30-13:00||Session 1: Universality
What properties of life are universal?
THE PREMISE: At one extreme, there are researchers who contemplate life not based on carbon (e.g. silicon) who consider solvents for life alternative to water (e.g. formamide) and entertain a possibility of life without boundary structures (e.g. a 'living ocean' on Europa). At the other extreme, a number of scientists claim that the severe constrains on life imposed by physics and chemistry enforce DNA as the necessary genetic polymer and the universality of energy transduction systems and core metabolism. The purpose of considering this question is to flesh out the scientific arguments for and against the universality of different properties of life, and perhaps to reach a consensus on the likely commonality between all forms of life. This question is highly topical in view of the rapidly increasing number of recent discoveries of extra-solar planets and the quest for finding habitable ones among them.
|14:00-16:30||Session 2: Evidence
What would convince us that we have answered the question "How did life begin?"
THE PREMISE: The transition from non-living to living systems involves, as a key step, the formation of a self-bounded physical system that contains interacting molecules. In many proposed scenarios, the complexity of such an event is often underestimated, and it is typically taken for granted, starting from the separated components. However, compared to the large amount of work done for understanding the emergence and the evolution of functional molecules and networks (ribozymes, catalytic peptides, simple metabolic cycles, self-replicating molecules, hypercycles and autocatalytic sets, etc.), much less has been done for understanding the physical mechanisms underlying the assembly of primitive cell-like structures. In particular, little attention has been given to go beyond the general and simplistic sentence '... and later became encapsulated in a membrane-based compartment'.
|Wednesday 2 May|
|9:30-12:30||Session 3: Emergence
How does Biology emerge from Chemistry?
THE PREMISE: The transformation of inanimate matter to complex life is traditionally divided into two stages. The first, abiogenesis, involves the conversion of non-living material to simplest life, and the second, the biological phase, is the stage on which Darwinian evolution began to operate. A key issue with regard the problem of the origin of life is to shed light on the physicochemical relationship between these two stages. Processes are normally characterized by driving forces and mechanisms so the question of the origin of life will be greatly clarified if both abiogenesis and biological evolution can be characterized in this way.
|14:00-16:30||Session 4: Evolution|
Is prebiotic evolution Darwinian?
THE PREMISE: There is no doubt that present-day life is highly open-ended. For example, a small bacterium with genome size of about 500,000 bases has essentially infinite number of possible states. This allowed for life to evolve finding solutions to a variety of problems, giving rise to the high diversity of present-day life, e.g. the number of viable strains, subspecies and individual variants of the aforementioned bacterium. In contrast, closed systems, exhibiting only relatively few possible states, have a much more limited capacity to undergo evolution. What is the relationship between the openness of a system and its evolvability? Is there an optimal 'openness' in this respect, and how could one effectively utilize this insight in computational and experimental models?
|Thursday 3 May|
|09:30-12:30||Session 5: Reproduction and metabolism
How did metabolism and genetic replication get married?
|14:00-16:30||Session 6: Chemistry|
Do we understand enough about prebiotic chemistry to formulate meaningful hypotheses about the origin of life?
THE PREMISE: Since Miller's 1953 demonstration of the synthesis of amino acids from reduced gases using an electric discharge, there has been a continual focus in origins of life research to find novel 'prebiotic' ways of making the molecules of modern biochemistry, including lipids, amino acids, nucleotides and their polymers. Despite almost 60 years of research, many obstacles remain. One possible reason is that the first replicating systems did not use similar compounds in their biochemistry. Indeed, amino acids are actually a rather small percentage of the total number of compounds formed in an electric discharge; more than 95 per cent of the products of such experiments remain unidentified. In carbonaceous chondrites, which are often presented as evidence that the 'molecules of life' are ubiquitous in the cosmos, compounds found in modern biochemistry again make up a vanishingly small fraction (<<1%) of the total small molecule organic inventory. Given that we know so little about the available compound types, is a direct reconstruction of a modern cell from such components the best way, or even a reasonable way to approach the problem of the origin of life? If not, what would we like or need to know to be able to approach this problem more productively?
|Friday 4 May|
|09:30-12:30||Session 7: Where?|
Where did life begin?
THE PREMISE: Evolution described by the Darwinian theory may be depicted as a phylogenetic tree and a postulated root representing the last common ancestor and its precursors. It is sometimes believed that solving the question of the Origins of Life will need to bring information about the lapse of time separating the Origin from the last common ancestor in the postulated root. Scenarios have been proposed based on possible environments assumed on the early Earth (Ocean, vents...). Alternatively, physicochemical principles can be used to reach conclusion about how self-organisation proceeds and chemistry can be helpful in bringing to light the related processes.
The following have shown an interest in addressing this question:
|14:00-16:30||Session 8: Closing panel discussion|