Whitesides Research

Whitesides Group Research

Origins of Life

The origin of life presents a particularly difficult problem for chemistry because it is essentially unconstrained: there are a very, very large number of reactions that might have occurred on peribiotic Earth, and few hard limits on the types of compounds that might have been available, on the possible reaction conditions, and on the processes that might finally have led to elementary cells of the type that we now know. What is, however, clear is the central conundrum of understanding “life”:  that is, that a living cell is composed of molecules; that molecules in cells are reacting; that neither the molecules nor the reactions are individually alive; but that the cell—as a collection of reactions and processes--is alive. Understanding how that transformation might have occurred—from an intractably large number of possible components, to an assembly of networks with an emergent property (“life”), is the central problem of the field, and one of the big problems in all of science.

The objectives of this research program are to develop an understanding of the plausible reactions that could occur on the peribiotic Earth. We, thus, wish to: i) constrain the problem to simplify and focus the task of other scientists who are interested in making the structurally complex molecules that are essential in current life; ii) attack some of the problems of concentration, catalysis, and network formation that are essential to the formation of spontaneously evolving, dissipative systems; iii) assemble plausible lists of elementary reactants and processes leading toward those commonly found in current metabolism; iv) develop rationales for the existence of “chemical fossils”:  that is, molecules, reactions, and processes that seem to be common to all life (so far as we know), and thus seem to offer hints about the very earliest, common, stages the formation of proto-cells.


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