Life As We Don't Know It
Steven Benner (Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Inc.)
Exobiology, the field that hunts for alien life, is a science without a subject matter. This makes difficult the use of "the" scientific method in the hunt. Tools used routinely to detect life on Earth are not likely to detect alien life. Nothing illustrates this better than recent exploration of Mars. Metabolism-like reactions, carbon fixation, oxygen release, perchlorate and (just last week) methane have all been observed on Mars. All might be considered to be signs of life, but might also arise without biology. Needed, but missing in exobiology, is a "theory" of life, an overarching framework that connects chemistry, information, and physiology to Darwinian processes, which are believed to be the only way that matter can spontaneously organize itself to give the attributes of life. A theory of life as a universal "natural kind" must come indirectly, as "universal life" cannot be observed directly.
This talk will feature recent efforts to build a general theory, efforts that include the resurrection of ancient forms of life for study in the laboratory, the combination of geology and chemistry to understand life's origins, and the construction of artificial chemical systems capable of Darwinian evolution in a "synthetic biology."