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By looking at information stored in chemistry, says former NASA fellow, life from non-life can be explained

An outstanding question in the field of evolutionary biology and biochemistry is how the complex, fragile biochemicals that made up life arose and transformed biomaterial in the early Earth from non-living to the earliest "living" organisms.  Some researchers have looked for quasi-alive constructs like prions or viruses for clues.

But a new paper by Paul Davies, an Arizona State University Regents' Professor and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Sara Walker, a NASA post-doctoral fellow at the Beyond Center, published in the journal Interface suggests that researchers are approaching the problem in the wrong way.

They suggest that rather looking at the "hardware" (biochemicals), they look at the "software" (chemically encoding information).  The authors suggest that the defining line between the living and non-living is the ability to manage encoded information, thus the key question is how this information handling arose.

Spark of Life
Could the clue to how life arose lie in how it encodes information?

Comments Prof. Walker, "When we describe biological processes we typically use informational narratives -- cells send out signals, developmental programs are run, coded instructions are read, genomic data are transmitted between generations and so forth.  So identifying life's origin in the way information is processed and managed can open up new avenues for research."

"Chemical based approaches have stalled at a very early stage of chemical complexity -- very far from anything we would consider 'alive.' More seriously they suffer from conceptual shortcomings in that they fail to distinguish between chemistry and biology."

"We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable," Prof. Davies adds, "We suggest that life may be characterized by its distinctive and active use of information, thus providing a roadmap to identify rigorous criteria for the emergence of life. This is in sharp contrast to a century of thought in which the transition to life has been cast as a problem of chemistry, with the goal of identifying a plausible reaction pathway from chemical mixtures to a living entity."

"To a physicist or chemist life seems like 'magic matter.  It behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system. Such lifelike properties include autonomy, adaptability and goal-oriented behavior -- the ability to harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions."

"We believe the transition in the informational architecture of chemical networks is akin to a phase transition in physics, and we place special emphasis on the top-down information flow in which the system as a whole gains causal purchase over its components.  This approach will reveal how the logical organization of biological replicators differs crucially from trivial replication associated with crystals (non-life). By addressing the causal role of information directly, many of the baffling qualities of life are explained."

Crystals are also self-replicating, but they lack the flexibility of life.
[Image Source:  Giovanni Dall'Orto]

If that all sounds a bit abstract, it is.

But basically it seems that the pair are arguing that by looking at differences between the self-replicating information in biochemicals (e.g. RNA) verus self-replication information in inorganic/non-living constructs (e.g. crystals), researchers may be able to retrace the process of how life arose on Earth more easily than if they merely focus on painstakingly mixing chemical constituents, hoping something arises.

Sources: Interface [via Arvix], Arizona State Univ.

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Publish or Perish?
By ShieTar on 12/14/2012 4:53:17 AM , Rating: 2
So, maybe I am missing something, or maybe the article is misinterpreting the published paper, but does it really just say "We should look at the problem in a different way, then we should be able to solve it!"?

Why did the authors not just heed their own advice, do the looking part, solve the problem, and then publish that solution?

RE: Publish or Perish?
By PaFromFL on 12/14/2012 9:02:09 AM , Rating: 2
The "researcher" merely "discovered" that information theory can be used to describe almost any statistical process (e.g. statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, cosmology). The terminology is different but the underlying math is the same. A genuine breakthrough occurs only when the hypothesized model matches the physical system better than previous models.

Our theories of the universe reflect the fact that we have five limited senses, live in a very small corner of universe, and have brains that evolved to a level where we can throw objects to knock fruit out of tall trees, discourage predators, and kill prey.

RE: Publish or Perish?
By gladiatorua on 12/14/2012 9:19:04 AM , Rating: 2
It's exactly what the authors said. And it's not even new approach.
It should be obvious that life didn't randomly appeared and then learned to reproduce. First came mechanisms to copy the simple information, and then that information developed to the point it could be called "life".
Look at . I don't know how legit the info is, but I think that this kind of approach is valid. And the site is more than five years old.

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