What’s the best approach for solving the origin of life?

What’s the best approach for solving the origin of life?

The origin of life is a very tricky question to answer. I say this not because it is a very interdisciplinary science question (that also uses some philosophy), but because it requires a unique thought process. Researchers within this field have to think outside of the box and come up with explanations for a completely unknown process that, as we know of, only happened once, happened an extremely long time ago, and in an environment which is only vaguely understood. With this in consideration, it can be seen how different methods for defining the origin of life arose. Now the question is, which of these approaches is the best for solving the origin of life?

Genes, Membranes, and Metabolisms?

All life as we know has at least three features in common; they have genes for information storage, some form of membrane or cell wall for containment, and metabolic processes for energy utilization. Many approaches for solving the origin of life use concepts that try to explain processes in which one of these three common features arose first. For example, RNA world, in which life started with genetic information and over time developed other aspects. Examples that use these two other common features are lipid-like molecules self-assembling into containers and metabolic pathways forming from geochemical cycles in disequilibrium. 

Approaches like these are very useful in advancing our knowledge of the origin of life. Since all life forms contain these three common features, it can be assumed that the last common ancestor most likely had all three of these features at some point or another. So, it’s not a bad idea to assume that the first life forms contained at least one of these three features. However, there are downfalls to these kinds of approaches too. Many these approaches have to make assumptions about the early earth’s chemical composition to satisfy their explanations. One issue I have with approaches like these is that they assume that all life must have these three features to exist, life as we know it may contain all three of these features but that does not necessarily mean all life has to uses these features. 

Pre-Biotic Environments?

Some research on the origin of life looks at the pre-biotic environments in which abiotic processes could have transformed into biotic processes. Research that looks at how life might have begun in hydrothermal vents is a good example of this. Personally, this is one of my favorite ways of thinking about how life first arose. Although, like other approaches to solving the origin of life, it has its own downfalls. A big issue I see with this approach is that too many assumption are made about the environmental conditions of early earth. A lot of assumptions have to be made about the early earth’s environment when conducting an experiment based on pre-biotic environmental conditions. It’s possible for environments like these one to have existed on the early earth but there’s no way of knowing the exact environmental conditions.


As technology becomes more advanced, more research on the origin of life is being developed using computer programs. This style of approach is important because it’s not limited by experiment conditions. One of the great advantages of this is how computer programs can run theoretical experiments much faster than they would normally happen in nature, allowing us to not have to wait around all day for chemical system to progress. However, these are just theoretical experiments and the natural world can only be replicated to a certain extent. 


Overall, it’s hard to say what’s the best approach for solving this difficult question. For all we know, the answer could be right in front of us and we just haven’t realize it yet, or we might be nowhere near the right answer. With our current level of knowledge, almost any theory on the origin of life could be right depending what assumptions you’re willing to make about the early earth. With this approach, it’s difficult to reject or accept any theory on the origin of life. It may be that the debate over the origin of life will only be answered when another example of life is found, assuming life can originate elsewhere, or when underlining principles that driving life become defined. There may not be a best approach for solving the origin of life with our current level of knowledge in biology, but if there is best way, it would most likely be a mixture of multiple different approaches. Although one thing can be agreed upon, that many more approaches to solve this question will be proposed before it’s anywhere near answered. 

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Comment by Alyssa Adams on April 28, 2016 at 10:42am

Nice overview of the different approaches scientists use for solving the origin of life! They all have their pros and cons, and you outlined these very nicely. I wonder if there are any approaches we haven't thought about yet. I'm having a difficult time imagining any, mostly because I don't know life well enough to identify a method of measurement. Perhaps another approach is through theoretical physics and mathematics. Even computer science (the philosophical/math part) gives a lot of interesting insights into the problem by introducing ideas of uncomputable functions, and the limits of what is actually computable in our universe. It asks whether of not life is computable and how difficult it would be to compute. But the downfall of this method is tractability: implementation and testability isn't well-defined. How can you simulate a computer to compute something that is uncomputable? I like your insight on using a combination of all these methods, because the origin of life is too broad to focus on a single approach. You did an awesome job putting the approaches to this problem into perspective!


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