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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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VI. Earth Life Emergence: Development of Body, Brain, Selves and Societies

2. The Origins of Life

    This image of a generic original protocell is from a NASA site: www.nas.nasa.gov/Main/Features/2000/Spring/Astro_protocells_image.html. Following the accompanying definition, “protocells” presage the formation of cellular life. This image depicts its basic functions; yellow represents the capture and utilization of environmental energy, blue represents the transport of nutrients, and green represents the transport of ions.


In the 1960s when I began my readings, an opaque discontinuity stood between the presence of organic Earth life and the extant physical cosmos. In the years since and especially the last decade this disconnect has been bridged by deep biological rootings in a conducive materiality, whence by turns condensed matter has come to have innate, active spontanities. Researchers have reconstructed many primordial components and sequential steps such as replicator biomolecules and protocell vesicles. Origin studies have often divided into two schools as to whether RNA replicators or metabolisms came first (Iris Fry). Three main features are now said to define living systems – a vital metabolism, bounded compartments, and informational programs. In the later 2010s as a unified understanding is being worked out, nature’s self-organizing network dynamics have additionally been factored in (Sara Walker, et al) in a guise of autocatalysis, hypercycles, autopoiesis, and so on.

2020: Across some 160 entries, our late recreation of the precursor biochemical, replicant, metabolic, protocellular, autocatalytic occasions of life, senses and evolvement is well along. By any light, a spontaneous, oriented fertility seems to occur wherever possible on its incarnate own. Into the 21st century, animate life, developmental gestation, and our Earthomo presence becomes deeply rooted in an increasingly conducive ecosmos. Current projects involve a novel factoring in independent self-organizing agencies and network topologies.

As a further consolidation, life’s common cellular makeup has been distilled into three main metabolic, replicative and compartmental features. The two camps of RNA or metabolism first are likewise combining their views. From mid 20th century glimpses over an opaque gulf between universe and human, these robust affirmations find living systems, their birthings and blossomings, and our late Gaian witness to trace a quickening continuity.

Barge, Laura, et al. Thermodynamics, Disequilibrium, Evolution. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. Online June, 2016.

Camprubi, Eloi, et al. The Emergence of Life. Space Science Reviews. 215/56, 2019.

Cardoso, Silvana, et al. Chemobrionics: From Self-Assembled Material Architectures to the Origin of Life. Artificial Life. 26/3, 2020.

Cronin, Leroy and Sara Imari Walker. Beyond Prebiotic Chemistry. Science. 352/1174, 2016.

Deamer, David. Assembling Life: How Can Life Begin on Earth and Other Habitable Planets?. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Goldenfeld, Nigel, et al. Universal Biology and the Statistical Mechanics of Early Life. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Vol. 375/Iss. 2109, 2017.

McFarland, Ben. A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Menor-Salvan, Cesar. ed. Prebiotic Chemistry and Chemical Evolution of Nucleic Acids. International: Springer, 2018.

Preiner, Martina, et al. The Future of Origin of Life Research. Life. 10/3, 2020.

Ruelle, David. The Origin of Life Seen From the Point of View of Non-Equilibrium Statistical Mechanics. arXiv:1701.08388.

Walker, Sara Imari and Cole Mathis. Network Theory in Prebiotic Evolution. Menor-Salvan, Cesar, ed. Prebiotic Chemistry and Chemical Evolution of Nucleic Acids. International: Springer, 2018.

Emergence in Chemical Systems 2.0. www.math.uaa.alaska.edu/~afkjm/chemicalemergence/index.php. An announcement for a conference to be held at the University of Alaska Anchorage, June 22-26, 2009 to consider the growing sense of a fertile natural materiality whose innate propensities develop into intricate and intelligent life. Leading researchers such as Robert Hazen, David Deamer, Jennifer Dunne, Steen Rasmussen, and others are confirmed speakers. The second quote for a Chemical Complexity section makes an engaging analogy with grammatical language.

The spontaneous increase of complexity, from nucleons to atoms to compounds to cells to organisms to society, is a basic property of nature. It involves the continuous creation of new entities and processes. The subject of this conference is to try to understand this drive to increasing complexity, and to creatively participate in the process. (Conference Mission)

In emergence we may deal with complex systems made of few parts that can be connected in different ways forming large number of entities that have never been fully explored. One example is the formation of chemical elements from electrons, protons and neutrons. This results in 117 elements and more than 3000 isotopes. From these, the large number of inorganic compounds is spontaneously generated in nature. From only 4 elements, C, O, N, and H, the infinite number of organic compounds may be created. These systems have much in common with languages. There, 25 letter are used to create thousands of words and from these words we may create infinite number of sentences (determined by grammar) and from these sentences and infinite number of ideas may be communicated. The common thread of emergence of complex structures may be seen in many systems. (Chemical Complexity)

Systems Chemistry. www.esf.org/conferences/08267. An October 2008 meeting held at Maratea, Italy by the European Science Foundation as part of its Action CM0703: Systems Chemistry initiative. Noted more in the SC section, many signs are noted of life’s origins rooting into an organic nature.

Adami, Christoph. Information-Theoretic Considerations Concerning the Origin of Life. arXiv:1409.0590. The Michigan State University scientist makes an important point that in addition to the usual metabolic and/or replicative aspects, the presence of innate autocatalytic programs ought to be factored in for a complete scenario.

Research investigating the origins of life usually focuses on exploring possible life-bearing chemistries in the pre-biotic Earth, or else on synthetic approaches. Little work has been done exploring fundamental issues concerning the spontaneous emergence of life using only concepts (such as information and evolution) that are divorced from any particular chemistry. Here, I advocate studying the probability of spontaneous molecular self-replication as a function of the information contained in the replicator, and the environmental conditions that might enable this emergence. I show that (under certain simplifying assumptions) the probability to discover a self-replicator by chance depends exponentially on the rate of formation of the monomers. If the rate at which monomers are formed is somewhat similar to the rate at which they would occur in a self-replicating polymer, the likelihood to discover such a replicator by chance is increased by many orders of magnitude. (Abstract)

Adami, Christoph and Thomas LaBar. From Entropy to Information: Biased Typewriters and the Origin of Life. arXiv:1506.06988. A chapter in From Matter to Life: Information and Causality, edited by Sara Walker, Paul Davies and George Ellis, from Cambridge University Press in late 2015. The posting updates Adami’s 2014 paper at arXiv:1409.0590 (search) about the necessity and presence beyond metabolic components of a prescriptive source driving the occasion of early organisms. But as many entries, a tacit conflation persists about greater nature. While it is proposed that an inherent exigency toward complex life seems to exist, per the second quote, this still occurs “by chance.” In our revolutionary moment, many authors remain on the fence often mixing both sides. While “information” is seen as “the defining characteristic of life,” this quality may yet occur by statistical excesses.

The origin of life can be understood mathematically to be the origin of information that can replicate. The likelihood that entropy spontaneously becomes information can be calculated from first principles, and depends exponentially on the amount of information that is necessary for replication. Here we present evidence from numerical simulations (using the digital life chemistry "Avida") that using a biased probability distribution for the creation of monomers (the "biased typewriter") can exponentially increase the likelihood of spontaneous emergence of information from entropy. We show that this likelihood may depend on the length of the sequence that the information is embedded in, but in a non-trivial manner: there may be an optimum sequence length that maximizes the likelihood. We conclude that the likelihood of spontaneous emergence of self-replication is much more malleable than previously thought, and that the biased probability distributions of monomers that are the norm in biochemistry may significantly enhance these likelihoods. (Abstract)

If the one invariant in life is information, it becomes imperative to understand the general principles by which information could arise by chance. It is generally understood that evolution, viewed as a computational process leads to an increase in information on average. (2)

Allwood, Abigail. Evidence of Life in Earth’s Oldest Rocks. Nature. 537/500, 2016. A commentary by an JPL CalTech astrobiologist on Rapid Emergence of Life Shown by Discovery of 3,700 Million Year Old Microbial Structures by Allen Nutman, et al in the same issue (537/535). Ancient rocky Greenland strata were found to have microbial fossils even in this earliest period not long after Earth’s calculated formation about 4 billion years ago. The inference is that given any minimum milieu, organic semblances will readily occur. Give life half an opportunity and it’ll will run with it.

Aono, Masashi, et al. A Principled Approach to the Origin Problem. Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere. Online July, 2015. A presentation at the 2014 Earth-Life Science Symposium by Japanese astrobiologists which contends, in so many words, that in addition to a current emphasis on replicator molecules and protocell metabolisms, a further independent domain of dynamic complex self-organization, as a “fundamental requisite,” need be factored in for a complete scenario and explanation

The key issue of the origin of life is the origin of a complex system rather than the abiotic formation of various organic substances, small and large. To consider this origin problem, it is advantageous to abstract some principles from biology and statistical physics to guide our approach. Referring to these principles, we aim to construct a chemical system called protometabolism, which would be a precursor of metabolism. (Abstract)

What is the cultural significance of the study of the origin of life? Physics as an empirical science depends on observations by us, macroeukaryotes. On the other hand, physicists wish to deduce everything we can observe from physics. Thus, a naturalistic Weltanschauung demands consistent understanding of physics and biology. Consequently, the origin study is its key ingredient. (1)

Ashkenasy, Gonen, et al. Emergence of Animate Behavior in Peptide-Based Ecosystems. Astrobiology. 2/4, 2003. A conference abstract notes the deep propensity of nature to give rise to increasingly complex, evolving organic systems and societies.

Living systems are comprised of autonomous self-reproducing ‘molecular ecosystems,’ defined as a collective of self-organized communities of dynamic interacting molecular species. (599)

Bada, Jeffery. How Life Began on Earth: A Status Report. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 226/1-2, 2004. Two complementary views are joined to explain the transition from abiotic compounds to autonomous self-replicating molecules. The prebiotic soup theory proposes organic chemicals in primordial seas which underwent polymerization to produce increasingly complex macromolecules. The metabolist version brings in the impetus of autocatalytic self-sustaining reactions which foster this evolution to form information-bearing polynucleotides. In so doing, life arises from an initial RNA chemistry to its DNA/protein biochemistry phase and on to cells and organisms.

Barge, Laura, et al. Redox and pH Gradients Drive Amino Acid Synthesis in Iron Oxyhydroxide Mineral Systemss. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116/4828, 2019. Cal Tech researchers including Michael Russell detail a probable pathway by which biochemical precursors were able to energetically come together and complexify.

Barge, Laura, et al. Thermodynamics, Disequilibrium, Evolution: Far from Equilibrium Geological and Chemical Considerations for Origin of Life Research. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. Online June, 2016. A 14 person team with several members from the Chemical Gardens group such as Julyan Cartwright and Michael Russell (search Barge) report on this NASA Astrobiology Institute conference, as the Abstract notes. Whereas other efforts may study biomolecular and environmental aspects, here nature’s energies which drive life’s evolutionary emergence are given their essential due. See also Leroy Cronin 2016 for another endeavor to also include intrinsic network dynamics.

The 8th meeting of the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Thermodynamics, Disequilibrium, Evolution (TDE) Focus Group took place in November 2014 at the Earth-Life Science Institute, at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan. The principal aim of this workshop was to discuss the conditions for early Earth conducive for the emergence of life, with particular regard to far-from-equilibrium geochemical systems and the thermodynamic and
chemical phenomena that are driven into being by these disequilibria. The TDE focus group seeks to understand how disequilibria are generated in geological, chemical and biological
systems, and how these disequilibria can lead to emergent phenomena, such as self-organization in bounded conditions eventuating in metabolism. Some planetary water-rock interfaces generate electrochemical disequilibria (e.g. electron, proton and/or ion gradients), and life itself is an out-of-equilibrium system that operates by harnessing such gradients across membranes. Understanding geochemical far-from-equilibrium systems and bounded self-organizing processes may be instructive in revealing some of the processes behind life’s origin. (Abstract)

Baross, John, et al. The Environmental Roots of the Origin of Life. Meadows, Victoria, et al, eds. Planetary Astrobiology. Tempe: University of Arizona Press, 2020. University of Washington, Carleton College and University of St. Andrews Earth system scientists first review of origin studies from J. B. Haldane and A. Oparin to current bottom up prebiotic chemistry and top down paleogenetics along with RNA and metabolism first views. The paper then digs deep into Hadean geologic, thermal and elemental conditions and on to early organic activities such as polymerization, compartments and cellularity. Again within the book paradigm of a whole biospherical active process, a global chemical and catalytic reactor is described. With this retrospect survey in place, the relative likelihood and biosignature detection of astrocosmic life occurrences is previewed.

The ongoing quest to understand how Earth life emerged and evolved converges on four aspects: the earliest evidence of life, geochemical properties of the environmental setting, and the life forms based on molecular and biochemical data. The fourth is how life got started which involves complex chemical and biochemical reactions that led to metabolism, genetics, and evolving organisms. One of the goals of this review is to identify the interrelationship of the Hadean environmental and geochemical conditions with critical biochemical determinants involved in the origin of life that could be helpful in our search for Earth-like life elsewhere. (Abstract excerpt)

Bartlett, Stuart and Michael Wong. Defining Lyfe in the Universe. Life. 10/4, 2020. CalTech and University of Washington astrobiologists scope out an expansive definition of living systems across a wide cosmic span so as to aid understandings of what they are and how vitality began at all. In regard, “four pillars” of autocatalysis, dissipation, homeostasis and learning are cited along with “three privileged functions” of replication, metabolism, and compartments. These features are seen to resolve the RNA first and other issues while broadening the presence of universal animation.

Life represents life as we know it; it uses the specific disequilibria and classes of components of earthly life. Life is an autocatalytic network of organometallic chemicals in aqueous solution that records and processes information about its environment and achieves dynamical order by dissipating any disequilibria. Lyfe represents any hypothetical phenomenon in the universe that fulfills these processes of the living state, regardless or components that it harnesses or uses. Lyfe maintains a low-entropy state via dissipation and disequilibria conversions, utilizes autocatalytic networks to achieve nonlinear growth and proliferation, employs homeostatic regulation to maintain stability and acquires information about its environment. (6)

Autocatalysis: The ability of a system to exhibit exponential growth of representative measures of size or population in ideal conditions. The property of autocatalysis can appear as self-catalysis, cross-catalysis, and network autocatalysis. Learning: The ability of a system to record information about its external and internal environment, process it, and carry out actions that feed back positively on its probability of surviving/proliferating. (7)

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