Introduction

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 are the questions which are addressed by this symposium by topics such as:

  • From abiological environments to synthetic life
  • Minimal chemistry required for the emergence of life
  • Embodied abiotic ‘robotic’ evolution of non-biological materials, systems, and function
  • Mimicking biological functions and properties with using the chemist’s toolbox
  • Evolution of diversity (chirality, promiscuity, autocatalysis, self-organization, regulation and control)
  • The role of epigenetics in driving and regulating development