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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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RE: Personally
By Gondor on 12/14/2012 8:45:45 AM , Rating: 4
Unless something drastically changes (in our ability to access information above the speed of light in vacuum, c) all of this is pretty much irrelevant - there's only "so far" you can go back with the origin of origin of ....origin of universe, before it stops making any sense whatsoever and/or even moves outside "our" universe, the limit of which we are unable to pass, and which is moving away at speed of c.

So for what it's worth, our universe could have been pre-programmed, however if programmer is sitting outside the universe we'll never be able to meet him so it makes absolutely no sense to waste time contemplating what's beyond the edge - let's focus on stuff inside first.

All this being said, I firmly believe the universe we're residing in is just a coincidence; it could easily have turned out some other way (with no humans on some obscure planet trying to come up with a witty explanation of its existence). I wouldn't find it too difficult to believe it has gone through the bang-expansion-contraction-boom cycle numerous times already, with races far smarter and species much dumber and worlds much more barren or thriving in its past cycles.

RE: Personally
By Ammohunt on 12/14/2012 11:56:45 AM , Rating: 2
So for what it's worth, our universe could have been pre-programmed, however if programmer is sitting outside the universe we'll never be able to meet him so it makes absolutely no sense to waste time contemplating what's beyond the edge - let's focus on stuff inside first.

That's all fine and nice but first we need to ask ourselves just what are we trying to explain and to what ends? Personally after having lived half my life already i haven't seen any tangible benefits from such knowledge; don't get me wrong its a cool topic but it ultimately its not empowering knowledge; man has done just fine as a species without it.

RE: Personally
By snakeInTheGrass on 12/17/2012 12:38:04 PM , Rating: 2
That there are cycles is possible, though coincidence? Hmmm... Even to have coincidence...

What I really find troubling is that it can't exist conceptually, at least the way our understanding of things goes. I mean, whether there is an "eternal" universe, multiverses, cycles, or whatever - how? Just to have a framework within which anything can even happen at all... WTF?

(And I dropped some commentary on the 'let's add another layer to something we can't understand' nature of putting a deity as a pat answer instead... though I guess it's more comforting to many than looking at the world and concluding that its very existence is disturbing. Doesn't explain how there can be a deity either... ;) )

Our meat processing units may just not be up to the task. But hey, maybe the AI's that will eventually destroy us will be able to figure it out. ;)

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer

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