Thermophiles, Norris Geyser Basin (image: NPS/Neal Herbert)

From its inception in 2017, the Santa Fe Institute’s Research Coordination Network* (RCN) has been bringing interdisciplinary researchers together to study life’s possible origins. This summer, SFI hosts two working groups through the RCN: “Feasible but Undiscovered Metabolisms,” from July 11–16, and “Multiple Life,” from August 22–26. 

The first working group will take a comprehensive look at energetically feasible but unknown metabolisms. “We know that plants do not use all wavelengths of light for photosynthesis — they don’t use ultraviolet light as an energy source,” notes SFI Professor Chris Kempes, who is a co-organizer for both working groups. “We want to think about where there are energy sources that could be harnessed by unknown metabolisms, and understand better the constraints that dictate the range of possible metabolisms,” he says.

The second meeting will shift the focus from specific energetic systems and possible metabolisms to universal principles, explains Kempes. This meeting will take its starting point from a recent SFI paper co-authored by Kempes and SFI President David Krakauer, in which they argue that life is best understood as having originated multiple times. The meeting will be oriented around three sets of questions: How different could the material of life be across diverse origins? What are the laws that constrain life? What principles do we lack that we need to make progress to build or recognize unknown forms of life?  

Alongside the meeting, SFI will conduct interviews with invitees to create SFI Press volumes, magazine articles, podcasts, and documentary films. “In the past, these meetings have generated white papers and collaborations within the research community,” says Caitlin McShea, Program Manager for the RCN, “but in this meeting, we will add science-fiction writers to the discussion.”

Kempes and McShea hope that both the workshop and the multimedia capture will allow SFI’s researchers and public audiences to engage with the study of life’s origins in an enticing new way. 

*National Science Foundation Grant Number 1745355, under the Research Coordination Networks (RCN) program (RoL: RCN for Exploration of Life’s Origins)