Chemistry, Life and Evolution

Beilstein Bozen Symposium 2016

30 May – ­­­3 June 2016
Yachthotel Chiemsee, Prien (Chiemsee), Germany

Scientific Committee:

Lee Cronin / University of Glasgow, UK

Martin G. Hicks, Carsten Kettner / Beilstein-Institut

David A. Winkler / CSIRO Manufacturing, Clayton, Australia

Aspects covered by this conference

  • From abiological environments to synthetic life
  • How much chemistry is required to launch a living minimal system or how to evolve non-biological materials towards biological desirable properties?
  • Mimicking biological functions and properties with means from the chemist’s kitchen
  • Evolution of diversity (chirality, promiscuity, autocatalysis, self-organization, regulation and control)
  • Epigenetics as non-coding elements to drive and regulate development

Chemistry, LIfe and Evolution

This symposium will address the chemical processes involved in the origin, evolution, and processes of life. This is an area of research where lines of thought in chemistry, physics, biology and informatics meet and interact. We will examine not only current theories for the origin of life –pathways from simple molecules to proteins and nucleotides - but will also cover directed evolution, organic and inorganic systems, autocatalytic systems, the influence of chirality, and transfer of information and related topics.

Relatively soon after the formation of the earth from highly condensed gas and dust a process took place that is named chemical evolution. How did simple materials in a reducing atmosphere subjected to intense energy sources such as UV radiation, radioactivity and thermal energy generate the necessary building blocks for life? A network of physical and chemical interactions resulted in the formation of the biologically relevant sugars, amino acids, purines, pyrimidines, nucleotides, fatty acids and polymers thereof. The tight interlocking of these components in first metabolic processes generated new environments with different chemical compositions from that of the primordial earth. The result was the creation of spatially separated chemical systems, sequestered from the environment, that were capable of energy transformation, maintaining a structure, and allowing the transmission of hereditary memory: the cell.

There is common consensus that modern cells descended from a single common ancestor, but how this primordial cell could have evolved from non-cellular chemical components and interactions still remains open.

In synthetic biology, researchers attempt to address this question by constructing hacked life forms to determine the minimal set required for an organism to fulfil the requirements of life. While the development of the physico-chemical networks was determined by natural laws under given conditions, the driving force of biological evolution was the need for mutation-enabled adaption to various environmental niches, leading to erratic developmental branches where only the most successful prevailed. Although this hypothesis is well established, it is often difficult for many lay people to imagine, thus alternative interpretive frameworks have arisen such as vitalism (spirit of life in any material), finalism (target-oriented event) and creationism (based on the Genesis).

What is life without chemistry? Is evolution possible without life? These were the questions which were addressed by this symposium.



Lee Cronin / University of Glasgow, UK


David A. Winkler / CSIRO Manufacturing Flagship, Clayton, Australia


The symposium brought together a diverse and eminent group of chemists, physicists, informaticians, and biologists to focus on the broad overlap between chemistry, life, and evolution – as well as debate the nature of the living state and the evolution of chemical pathways leading to molecular complexity. There were approximately fifty participants form Europe, the US and Oceania. The topics discussed during the workshop spanned the ancient origins of life and the role of in vivo evolution; contemporary synthetic life, protein design and in vitro evolution; and in silico simulation of evolutionary processes and biological neural networks and their application to the future of life.  

The first two days were almost exclusively dedicated to discussions on prebiotic life; the types of chemistry that could lead to replication, self-assembling and far from equilibrium processes, information storage, compartmentalization and information flows. The opening invited lecture was presented by Prof. George Whitesides from Harvard University. The central role of environment was also discussed at length and fascinating presentations described the formation of complex organic molecules in deep hydrothermal vents and pools; pathways from simple molecules to proteins and nucleotides; directed evolution, organic and inorganic systems, autocatalytic systems; and the influence and origin of chirality.


The move from prebiotic plausibility to simplicity was introduced and widely discussed as a potential new avenue that might allow the field to unify behind a common set of experimental goals. There were also very interesting presentations on how to evolve chemistry using greatly expanded versions of the classic Miller-Urey origins of life experiment, and robotic methods of evolving chemical reactions, as well as expanding the genetic basis of biology from four to six base pairs.

The final day focused more strongly on contemporary research into protein and enzyme evolution, the role of metals in templating of reactions, the origin of metalloproteins, very accurate simulations of G-protein coupled receptors, a major class of drug targets, and the exploitation of computational analogies of Darwinian evolution and biological learning and adaptation to the design of new molecules and materials.  The meeting was thought provoking since several participants from a range of fields suggested that a paradigm shift needed to result if progress towards understanding life as a process, as well as detailed chemistry, would lead to new insights into the emergence of biology. Such insights are crucial in understanding how ‘easy’ life is, the possibility of alien life locally or in the Universe as a whole, and the future for the chemistry of biology.

Scientific Program



Tuesday, 31 May


Early Processes: What Might Have Come Before the Beginning?
George Whitesides, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Hydrothermal Vents and the Origin of Life (Real Microbes)
William F. Martin, Heinrich-Heine Universität Düsseldorf

Oral Poster Session #1
Posters 1 - 4

Towards Convergent and Cooperative Abiogenic Processes
Terry Kee, University of Leeds

Major Prebiotic Transitions as Stages of Protocellular Development
Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo, University of the Basque Country, Leioa, Spain

Chirality and Prebiotic Chemistry
Donna Blackmond, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

A New Model for the Origin of Cellular Life: Coupled Phases and Combinatorial Selection in Hydrothermal Pools
David W. Deamer, University of California Santa Cruz

Oral Poster Session #2
Posters 5 - 7

Constraining Chemical Models for the Origin of Darwinism
Steven Benner, The Foundation of Applied Molecular Evolution, Alachua, FL

Why and How Kinetics, Thermodynamics, and Chemistry can Combine to Trigger the Logic of Biological Evolution
Robert Pascal, CNRS - Université Montpellier-2


Wednesday, 1 June


The Quest for Self-programming 'Evolvable' Chemistry
Lee Cronin, University of Glasgow

Systems Chemistry: Towards Darwinian Evolution of Self-replicating Molecules
Sijbren Otto, University of Groningen

Oral Poster Session #3
Posters 8 - 12

Synthesis of Out-of-equilibrium Oscillating Chemical Reaction Networks: Towards Living Materials
Wilhelm T.S. Huck, Radboud University Nijmegen

Towards Synthetic Cellularity via Protocell Design and Construction
Stephen Mann, University of Bristol


Thursday, 2 June


Nearer to Nature: Design and Optimization of Artificial Enzymes
Donald Hilvert, ETH Zurich

Biomimetic Molecular Design Tools that Learn, Evolve and Adapt
Dave A. Winkler, CSIRO, Clayton, Australia

The Evolutionary Potential of Promiscuous Enzyme Activities
Shelley Copley, University of Colorado at Boulder

G-Protein Coupled Receptors: Answers from Simulations
Timothy Clark, Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nurnberg

Replication Towards Complexity with Thermal Gradients
Dieter Braun, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Chemical Selection of Proteogenic Amino Acids and Canonical Nucleotides
Matthew W. Powner, University College London

A Universal Class of Innocuous Chassies for Synthetic Biology
Antoine Danchin, Institut ICAN, Paris

The Potential Role of Metallopeptides in the Origins of Life
Sheref S. Mansy, University of Trento, Povo, Italy

Conference Photo 2