Understanding how and why life emerged on Earth has been a scientific question since the 1930s. However, what we think that question is, and what counts as an answer, has continually changed as our understanding of biology and of planetary and space chemistry have repeatedly been overturned.
Eric Smith will review four approaches to the origin-of-life problem. Each approach is anchored in a paradigm-changing discovery about nature, but also reflects, to some extent, traditional viewpoints from different disciplines.
One approach focuses on the molecules of life and how to make them. A second emphasizes the capacity of Darwinian evolution to shape matter and the particular role of nucleic acids in carrying the evolutionary process on Earth.
A third emphasizes the intricate embedding of the biosphere within geochemistry and planetary energetics, and it interprets the invariance of these relations over geological timescales as evidence of constraints on the possibilities for both living matter and evolution.
The fourth approach emphasizes the problem of life’s robustness. It is still mostly passed over both in biology and in origin-of-life research. But lessons learned in physics about the hierarchy of matter suggest that this approach is as fundamental as the other three.
From each point of view, the requirements for an explanation of life's emergence have changed. Regarding them together, we can arrive at a provisional definition of the nature of the living state that is at once commonsense, but surprisingly far-removed from the definitions that were thought to be adequate a century ago.
About the Speaker
Eric Smith studies the origin of life from the perspectives of biochemistry, microbiology, geochemisty, and statistical physics.
Smith received the Bachelor of Science in Physics and Mathematics from the California Institute of Technology in 1987 and a Ph.D. in Physics from The University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin) in 1993,.
From 1993 to 2000 he worked in physical, nonlinear, and statistical acoustics at the Applied Research Labs, UT Austin, and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. From 2000, he worked at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), in New Mexico, on problems of self-organization in thermal, chemical, and biological systems. Smith’s work at SFI reflected the institute’s interest in common motifs in complex systems, including evolutionary dynamics, non-equilibrium thermodynamics, game theory, economics, and linguistics.
Starting in 2007, Smith participated in wide-ranging National Science Foundation-sponsored project to understand the emergence of life, from geochemistry to the genetic code. That project brought together geochemists, biochemists, molecular biologists, microbiologists, and physicists.These colleagues remain his working partners and have shaped Smith's view of the nature of life and the problem of its origin.
In 2015, Smith joined the Earth-Life Science Institute at Tokyo Institute of Technology as a Principal Investigator. Later that year, Smith joined the School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Tech, as a member of Frank Rosenzweig's NASA Astrobiology Institute node on major evolutionary transitions.
Smith co-authored with Harold Morowitz the book “The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere.” Published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press, the book gathers the complicated and diverse landscape of ideas and literature needed to study the origin of life under a unifying narrative. It aims to make the topic accessible to researchers wanting to enter the field.