The Origin of Life as a Chemical Ecological Problem: New Ideas and New Experiments

For May 23, 2018

Hi WN@TL Fans,

Yesterday was one of those stunner days when you learn something that bowls over your worldview, even though the news is six years old.  It was a simple sentence:  “Scientists now believe there are more planets than stars in the universe.”

Likewise, it had been a stunner in 1992 when astronomers first announced the discovery of planets circling another star (a pulsar).

Now, the astronomers’ inclination is that it’s getting harder and harder to find stars that don’t have planets.

We now face the prospect of billions of galaxies each with billions of stars each with a better chance than not of having planets.   Throw in the factor of billions of years, and pretty soon you’re talking a real likelihood for life beyond us.

So what conditions can we imagine, and how can we create and test those conditions, to see if we can gin up spontaneous new life?  What might be the sparks, templates and drivers of self-propagating compounds and structural components of life as it is on Earth, and possibly as it is in the Heavens?

This week (May 23) David Baum of Botany and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery  provides the next episode in our series on Synthetic Biology with his talk entitled “The Origin of Life as a Chemical Ecological Problem: New Ideas and New Experiments”.

This is appealing stuff to the kid-with-the-chemistry-set in me:  Creating life not ex nihilo but rather ex perimental.

Here’s how Prof. Baum describes his talk:

Life is a chemical ecosystem that can propagate itself, spreading into formerly unoccupied regions of space. In his talk, David Baum will show that self-propagation implies the capacity to evolve adaptively, and that such adaptive evolution can begin with simple chemical ecosystems occupying mineral surfaces, which only later invent cells and genetic systems. He will also discuss the implications of this ecological approach for empirical research into the origins of life and describe a set of experiments that he’s conducting as part of a collaborative team funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA.

About the Speaker

David Baum is a professor in — and a former chair of — the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he conducts research in evolutionary biology, plant genetics, and the origins and early evolution of life. He earned an undergraduate degree in botany at Oxford University, a doctorate in population and evolutionary biology from Washington University, and then conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

He served on the faculty of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and earned tenure there in 2000 before returning to the University of Wisconsin in 2001. Baum has published two books and more than 100 research publications; has been awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Young Investigator Award, an NSF Career Award, a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship; and was elected a fellow of the American Association for theAdvancement of Science. He teaches courses in introductory biology and evolution and was honored with UW–Madison’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 2015.


Next week (May 30) is the traditional Memorial Day, and I am grateful to be able to mark the day with a presentation on the now-completed story of “Finding Lt. Fazekas:  Resolution.”   Charles Konsitzke, Leslie Eisenberg and Ryan Wubben will share the story of their excavations in 2016 and 2017 in the north of France.

I am delighted to inform you that Frank Fazekas, Jr, the son of Lt. Fazekas, and Frank Jr’s wife will both be in the audience next week.  It will be a unique opportunity to hear from them how this recovery project, as well as how the enduring gratitude of the people of Buysscheure, France, have affected the arcs of their lives.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension