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A Second Nobel for Jack Szostak?

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"You heard it here first," announced astrophysicist Mario Livio as Harvard biologist and Nobel laureate Jack Szostak told a World Science Festival "Search for Life" gathering on Saturday in New York that he expected to make "life in the lab" in three to five years -- and more likely within three years.

Livio dubbed Szostak "the leader of origin-of-life studies in the universe."

Szostak, however, did not go into detail as to why he thought he was so close to a synthetic cell that self-reproduces and cautioned that, at the moment, there are still lots of gaps in our understanding about a continuous pathway from chemistry to life.

Said Szostak, "For the parts that we do understand, sometimes we can see that there are two or three or four different ways this could have happened, maybe in slightly different environments."

Szostak described early-Earth conditions as still poorly understood:

In particular, we know that biology uses iron-sulfur compounds a lot to catalyze reactions. So why is that? Is it because that's something that was important in the beginning of life, or is it because that's just really good chemistry that life grabbed hold of later on and used for its own advantage?

He raised the question about where the materials that make the building blocks of biology came from:

It probably can't all have come from the same environment. ... It might be that some molecules, like what we make our membranes out of, might have come from deep hydrothermal vents. Other molecules might have come from atmospheric chemistry. Other molecules might have had to come from chemistry catalyzed by mineral particles. ... Those are some of the things we just don't know that need more explanation.

Harvard Origins of Life Initiative director Dimitar Sasselov, also on the panel at the WSF "salon," told the audience that years ago, the origins of life was a neglected question, mostly because people thought it was too hard. But outside the meeting room he confirmed that they are indeed now "very close" to life in the lab. Sasselov thinks it will take five years, not three.

This is fascinating considering that protocell development is roughly only a decade old.

Sasselov and Szostak, aside from their day jobs, are both coordinators of the Simons Foundation Origins of Life collaboration, with Gerald Joyce (Scripps), John Sutherland (Cambridge), Matthew Powner (University College London) and others among the investigators, and with a team of postdoc researchers. Simons Foundation was one of the principal sponsors of this year's WSF.

In one lighthearted panel exchange Mario Livio described Jack Szostak as "a very competent person," adding, "If Jack manages to do life in his lab--"

"Then you know it's really easy," Szostak jested.