Image: © Marchal

Life requires particular chemical reactions, and to make them happen, the chemicals need to be highly concentrated. Such concentrations won’t occur if the compounds are awash in a great sea.

Thus, to create life, first there has to be a little compartment. In other words, a cell.

“A cell is a big complicated thing that does all this stuff,” says SFI Professor Eric Smith who, along with SFI Science Board Chair Emeritus Harold Morowitz, is hosting a workshop June 16-19 to ask how cells could have come about.

First a cell somehow has to form. Ideally, it will self assemble from raw materials. But how can such a complicated structure possibly create itself?

The next problem a cell faces is as soon as it concentrates a compound, it’s liable to explode. Concentration creates osmotic pressure that pushes against the cell membrane. To resist this, the membrane has to be either toughened or reinforced.

At the same time, the membrane has to be porous, welcoming some things in and shutting others out.

The workshop is the third in a series of annual meetings that are part of a five- year NSF Frontiers in Integrative Biological Research (FIBR) grant led by SFI. The project brings scientists from many disciplines and institutions together to formulate and test an integrated theory of the early stages in the emergence of life from abiotic chemistry.