Slime mold micro (Photo: Ian Lindsay/Pixabay)

If you created life in the lab, how would you know that you’ve done so? If you observed life on another planet, how would you prove it to a skeptic? As research into life’s origins has proliferated, answering these questions definitively seems increasingly difficult.

In the past decade, scientists from across a striking array of disciplines — physics, astrobiology, synthetic biology, and biochemistry — have developed theories, experiments, and models to illuminate ways that life could arise. Yet across disciplines, scientists often disagree about the signs of life. Is life signaled by complex molecules? By particular dynamics? By emergent evolution?

For SFI Professor Chris Kempes and SFI External Professor Ricard Solé, the time is ripe to take stock of key approaches and clarify the boundaries that frame the theoretical space of the field. Their virtual working group, “Origins of Life: The Possible and the Actual” brings together an interdisciplinary group of researchers from February 1-5.

For Solé the working group is an opportunity to identify constraints on the many possible paths to life that researchers have proposed. In general, theoretical space is broad, Solé explains: “in our minds, we can imagine a lion with wings.” Yet watching cells evolve and die in the lab reminds us that in evolution “not everything is possible.” Solé hopes that the interdisciplinary group will help scientists identify constraints that extend from experimental to theoretical approaches.

For Kempes, looking across the many ways that different researchers have tackled some part of life’s origins can help us unify the field and identify general principles that could form the basis of a general theory. Yet Kempes does not expect that the meeting will produce a unified theory. In his words, the group is “unlikely to be unified — but the debates will highlight possibilities.” When we ask the difficult question — “across all of the examples we have, what are the general principles?” — we can start to clarify what divergent approaches hold in common. 

Distilling the field’s core agreements and disagreements about life’s general principles is a significant step for inspiring new research. Ultimately, Solé and Kempes hope to share the new theoretical spaces that the working group develops for tackling the field’s most difficult problems.

Read more about the virtual working group.