Inside a New Effort to Discover Life’s Origins

A dispatch from Tokyo, where scientists are trying to answer one of science’s most vexing questions.

Issei Kato / Reuters

Today is only day one, and I have a feeling I’m about to piss everybody off.

Outside the rain sloshes across Tokyo in an August downpour. Inside, sitting in front of me, are a collection of 40 researchers from more than ten countries and almost as many disciplines, sipping coffee and chatting about their jetlag. We have all come to the Earth Life Science Institute on the Tokyo Institute of Technology campus in pursuit of an absurdly ambitious goal: We want to find new ways to solve the question of life’s origins, and we want to do it in less than 72 hours.

Some of that is my fault. I’m supposed to be running this workshop, a duty I feel woefully ill-equipped for because this is not really “my science.” My comfort zone, if that’s the right term, is the realm of exoplanets and astrophysics, but compared to the intricate terrain of molecules and biology those challenges feel like a cakewalk.

To kick off the meeting, I’m going to do the only thing I can reasonably do, which is ask the dumbest scientific questions I can think of: Did life originate more than once 4 billion years ago? Do we know for sure that origins of life events aren’t happening today, on the Earth? If life’s origin was a process that took tens of millions of years, how can we hope to repeat that process in an experiment? And what do we even mean when we say that something is “alive”?

One by one I step through my naïve list, and after each item the response from the group is “good question, we don’t know!” By the end of the session I feel like I’ve endured a kind of scientific catharsis: I may be ignorant, but I guess I’m not stupid. A colleague tells me that it’s refreshing to see someone unafraid to stick their neck out. That’s a good thing, right?

The truth is that the question of life’s origins is about as vexing a problem as science has ever faced. Ask a hundred random scientists to tell you how they think life originated and you will probably get a hundred slightly different answers. To compound matters, technology keeps opening new doors out of which new questions spill.

Take for example one of the granddaddy experiments on the origin of life, carried out in 1954 by the chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey. Miller and Urey placed a mix of gases thought to represent the Earth’s primordial atmosphere—methane, water, ammonia, and hydrogen—in a flask and sparked artificial lightning through it to see what would happen.

After running the apparatus for about a week the pinkish gunk at the bottom of the flask contained a mix of a small number of amino acids, key “building blocks” for terrestrial biochemistry. More elaborate experiments produced a greater variety of these compounds. Their gear wasn’t making life, but it was surely making the beginnings of life, which was pretty astonishing.

Just after Miller’s death in 2007, 50-year-old vials from those early experiments were unearthed and the residues inside scrutinized with state-of-the-art mass spectrometers and liquid chromatographs. Remarkably, it appears that the old experiment had actually produced an even richer array of organic molecules than originally thought—by a factor of nearly five. The implication was powerful: If a simple experiment in a flask can get this far, a whole planet must be able to do better.

Altogether the past half-century has seen a bewildering array of findings that speak to life’s origins not as something weird, but as something just about unavoidable. The discovery of hydrothermal systems spewing chemical feedstock in the depth of the oceans is a great example. Revolutions in genomics and proteomics have revealed a whole new map of life, illuminating core pieces of life’s function and evolution during the past 4 billion years. And across fields as diverse as physics and economics we’ve seen the emergence of, well, emergence—a spontaneous generation of order, or process, or behavior, that can occur from the interaction of many simpler players, be they molecules or birds in a flock.

Therein lies one of the most frustrating aspects of the study of the origins of life; juicy pieces of the puzzle appear all around us, but we still can’t fit them together successfully. Even defining what life really is represents a challenge. Without a good quantitative measure of “aliveness,” it’s actually difficult to talk about origins. That puts us in danger of falling into the ancient Greek philosophical mosh pit, debating whether or not a flame is alive.

Japan is a resonant place to be tackling these existential conundrums: these links between us and the planet’s deep history, and the different yet parallel pathways that fate and physics could take the world along. Because more than anything else, to a westerner’s eye this is a country where a possible future continually meets an alternate past.

As our three-day gathering progresses, some of Japan’s strange magic seems to be having an effect. The science of origins of life divides into several sub-fields. Some are almost exclusively concerned with the detailed machinery of organic (carbon-based) molecules, the blocks of the Miller-Urey experiment, and more complex molecular pieces. How do these molecules behave in different environments, and how they can self-assemble into more and more functional structures?

Other researchers busy themselves by discussing the intriguing field of artificial life, the quest for an in silico rendering of living systems, both matching real biology and taking on entirely new forms. There is also radical work being undertaken on inorganic life, RNA-worlds, synthetic organisms in wet labs, and more.

There’s a growing realization in the room that many of the biggest problems in these diverse areas are all the same, just under different names. For example, coming up with that measure of system “aliveness” is a challenge common to areas as disparate as chemistry, algorithm design, and solar-system exploration. Serious consideration is given to augmenting human-led investigations with “thinking algorithms” and robots to help analyze insanely complex data and systems.

The most tangible progress comes from two deceptively simple ideas: We need a better common language, and we need to spend more time talking to each other.

Did it really take tens-of-thousands of air miles, and rearranged schedules to gather and discover that we should all hold hands better?

We decide that there are different types of origins. These include terrestrial, plausible, and artificial—or what actually happened on Earth, what could have happened, and what never happened but can now. In the past, researchers thinking about these questions have often, at best, ignored each other, or at worst been consciously dismissive of each other. It’s pretty clear that the time has come to move on. Cracking the problems of the origins of life—in all its guises—is probably not going to be a singular accomplishment, no lone genius is going to tie all the threads together. It’s just too damn complicated.

Scientists have a lot of pride, but more than perhaps any other field, the origins of life is pushing us towards a fundamentally new type of research, where orthogonal approaches and the kindness of strangers are essential.

The rain stops and the meeting ends. A mob of us decompress over beer and sake in a local izakaya—a pub-come-restaurant. We’re all exhausted and at first a little quiet. But slowly, a few seats from where I’m sitting, a conversation springs up between an unlikely gang of roboticists, theorists, and chemists. Grand plans start to crystallize across the wooden table, emerging from pieces of broken English and Japanese.

Whatever the origins of life were on Earth, it’s hard not to marvel at the curious organisms that came along 4 billion years later with the capacity to worry about such questions. And here, on Japan’s fragile crustal island, for tonight, at least, the mood is optimistic that we might yet crack the puzzle.