Scientists Offer New Way To Look At The Origins Of Life
December 13, 2012

Scientists Offer New Way To Look At The Origins Of Life

[Watch Video: Paul Davies on the Origins of Life]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

People have been trying to understand the origins of life on Earth through scientific means since the concept of science began and a pair of Arizona State University researchers suggests in a new report that we´ve been approaching the question incorrectly, almost from the beginning.

In a paper titled, "The algorithmic origins of life,” Paul Davies and Sara Walker proposed that understanding the correct chemical makeup for the origin of life only tells part of the story and scientists should also be focused on how chemical information is organized into life-creating processes.

They equate the shift in perspective to understanding how a computer works. To function, a computer not only needs hardware, akin to life´s chemical makeup, it also needs software, or chemical information.

"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," Walker said. "So identifying life's origin in the way information is processed and managed can open up new avenues for research."

"We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable," added Davies. "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."

Walker and Davies argue that their approach skirts many issues that have confounded previous efforts to define the origin of life.

"Chemical based approaches," Walker said, "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."

Davies explained that an information-based approach simplifies many of the complex interacting systems other scientists attempt to model.

"To a physicist or chemist life seems like 'magic matter,'" he said. "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," Davies added. "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."

The scientists said they were unsure about how the transmission of information began to take priority in the course of chemical reactions, but they hope their study will hit the reset button on the origin debate and frame the conversation in a different way.