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Steve Benner: Origins Soufflé, Texas-Style

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Why exactly is the January 2014 Origins of Life / Gordon Research Conference in Galveston so locked down? There is an elaborate registration process, a fee of over $1,000 to attend, and approval by Chairman Steve Benner required. Plus, conference goers are asked not to reveal what went on there.

The trend is now for transparency. The January 2013 Princeton University Origins conference was streamed over the Internet. Even the Cool Edge conference at CERN earlier this year invited media without restriction. So I decided to have a chat with Steve Benner about the upcoming Texas Origins meeting:

Suzan Mazur: You told me earlier this year at Princeton that as chairman of the January 2014 Origins of Life conference in Galveston, you wanted to invite Harry Lonsdale and the recipients of his 2012 Origins of Life research grants -- John Sutherland, Dave Deamer, Paul Higgs, et al. You thought there would be results by the time of the Gordon Research Conference. I did not see any of those names on the program. Will they be presenting?

Steve Benner: I did invite them. I have not gotten a letter from Mr. Lonsdale. I did invite John Sutherland and a number of other people who are working in this area, and they had a schedule conflict, something that was going on in the European Community. We've got an extremely strong representation from Japan.

Suzan Mazur: Japan is one of the sponsors of the conference.

Steve Benner: As you know, the Japanese government has just set up two major science and technology centers.

Suzan Mazur: I recently interviewed Kei Hirose, the director of ELSI (Earth Life Science Institute), one of the centers.

Steve Benner: Maybe you can help me, if Mr. Lonsdale reads The Huffington Post. We did, however, get Niles Lehman, who's at Portland State University.

Suzan Mazur: Niles Lehman -- Nilesh Vaiyda's collaborator on combining fragments of RNA and demonstrating that autocatalytic sets can emerge spontaneously.

Steve Benner: Lehman is going to have to represent the entire Lonsdale operation at this meeting.

[Author's note: Lehman advises that he will be discussing the experiment he did with Vaidya, not the Lonsdale-sponsored research, which involves combining even smaller fragments of RNA -- "in the 10, 15 range."]

Suzan Mazur: Why has the approach to investigating Origin of Life now expanded from one of a sudden transition to one of a series of stages, evolution as a process, before life materializes? It used to be that evolution was discussed once life emerged. I'm actually referring to the recent paper published by authors John Sutherland, Robert Pascal and Addy Pross, titled "Towards an Evolutionary Theory of the Origin of Life Based on Kinetics and Thermodynamics." The paper mentions Carl Woese in the second line -- Carl Woese, who told me in an interview last October, before he died, that LUCA, the last universal common ancestor, was not anything material; it was a process.

Steve Benner: If you can send me a link to that paper, I promise to read it.

Suzan Mazur: Woese is cited. His former collaborator Nigel Goldenfeld is not. But Goldenfeld mentioned to me just weeks ago at the Santa Fe Institute that he agrees with Woese regarding LUCA. Sutherland et al. seem to be talking about the same thing. They're looking for process. LUCA is a process, nothing material.

Steve Benner: We have failed in any continuous way to provide a recipe that gets from the simple molecules that we know were present on early Earth to RNA. There is a discontinuous model which has many pieces, many of which have experimental support, but we're up against these three or four paradoxes, which you and I have talked about in the past. The first paradox is the tendency of organic matter to devolve and to give tar. If you can avoid that, you can start to try to assemble things that are not tarry, but then you encounter the water problem, which is related to the fact that every interesting bond that you want to make is unstable, thermodynamically, with respect to water. If you can solve that problem, you have the problem of entropy, that any of the building blocks are going to be present in a low concentration; therefore, to assemble a large number of those building blocks, you get a gene-like RNA -- 100 nucleotides long -- that fights entropy. And the fourth problem is that even if you can solve the entropy problem, you have a paradox that RNA enzymes, which are maybe catalytically active, are more likely to be active in the sense that destroys RNA rather than creates RNA.

Suzan Mazur: I think things are shifting to nonmaterial events.

Steve Benner: That's right. I think you're right about that. We have been trying for close to 10 years now to get what we call dynamic kinetic systems, a collection of small molecules interacting with each other, maybe some catalyzing transformations of others, a non-linear feedback, some kind of amplification and trying to find working examples, recipes, where you can actually go back and mix something and see something. We are finding all sorts of problems in getting behavior that we find useful, let alone Darwinian out of this. I'm hoping to walk out of the Gordon conference for sure with a clear understanding of how life originated by one of these schemes -- a dynamic scheme that involves A interacting with D interacting with C, back to A without my having--

Suzan Mazur: You note in the conference program that how big science might be funded in the future will be addressed. And you mention Hollywood and certain philanthropies as possible sources. Will you also be discussing how these funding sources could affect the research?

Steve Benner: The people at the conference will discuss what they feel like discussing. I have very little to say about it. What is somewhat new -- and Lonsdale reflects this -- the Simons Foundation has stepped up. The Templeton Foundation is interested. Of course, the National Science Foundation is actually talking about this. The Japanese government. The Max Planck Society is thinking about setting up a whole Max Planck Institute on origins of life. What is very much different for 2014, which I think you could really not say in 2012, when Lonsdale got started on this idea, is that many of the nontraditional private foundations are disappointed with the narrowly focused, health-related, hypothesis-driven-related research programs that avoid big science questions. The Gates foundation is maybe the exception. I'm amazed at how trivial the Gates Foundation calls are for little things in the corner of very narrow technology. NASA, for many many years, was the man. NASA was the organization that funded Woese continuously from the 1960s. A lot of the major science foundations out there in the world are stepping up and saying, "Yes, origins of life is maybe the kind of problem that maybe is now right. Maybe the chemistry, the biology, the physics is coming together."

Suzan Mazur: The public has been paying for scientific research but has not had a say in how funds are directed. Has there been any thought given to just reaching out to the public directly? That would assure the public that they're getting the science they want.

Steve Benner: I agree with that. We just had a discussion about crowdsourcing scientific funding. I've never seen it done for origins. Our group actually sells origins-of-life jewelry. The minerals that create the borate and the alkali and the phosphate are minerals like tourmaline and apatite and peridot.

Suzan Mazur: Are you going to be streaming the conference over the Internet?

Steve Benner: The Gordon Research Conference is defined by non-citability. You're not allowed to quote someone as having said something. Those are the rules.

Suzan Mazur: But the times are asking for more transparency.

Steve Benner: I know. I'll give you the email.