Origin of Life Needs a Rethink, Scientists Argue

11:17:25 PM, Sunday, December 16, 2012

(LiveScience.com, By Tia Ghose, 11 December 2012) "Scientists trying to unravel the mystery of life's origins have been looking at it the wrong way, a new study argues.

Instead of trying to recreate the chemical building blocks that gave rise to life 3.7 billion years ago, scientists should use key differences in the way that living creatures store and process information, suggests new research detailed today (Dec. 11) in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

"In trying to explain how life came to exist, people have been fixated on a problem of chemistry, that bringing life into being is like baking a cake, that we have a set of ingredients and instructions to follow," said study co-author Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and astrobiologist at Arizona State University. "That approach is failing to capture the essence of what life is about."

Living systems are uniquely characterized by two-way flows of information, both from the bottom up and the top down in terms of complexity, the scientists write in the article. For instance, bottom up would move from molecules to cells to whole creatures, while top down would flow the opposite way. The new perspective on life may reframe the way that scientists try to uncover the origin of life and hunt for strange new life forms on other planets.

"Right now, we're focusing on searching for life that's identical to us, with the same molecules," said Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center who was not involved in the study. "Their approach potentially lays down a framework that allows us to consider other classes of organic molecules that could be the basis of life…"