Origin-of-life studies have been a feature of chemistry for a long time, and over the years some key questions have become clear. It’s clear from astronomical and planetary science data that the common molecules of organic chemistry are more or less soaking the universe. Amino acids and simple carbohydrates are apparently part of the cloud of gunk that makes up a new solar system, with more forming all the time. But a major step is how (and why) molecules would have organized themselves into gradually more complex systems. Some parts of the process may have been modeled already; there are a number of interesting ways that primitive membranes might have formed, which would seem to be a necessary step in distinguishing the relatively concentrated inside of a proto-cell from the more watery outside.
But a new paper (discussed here as well) has a theory that says this might have been flat-out inevitable:
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life. . .
. . .“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.
Self-replication would be an excellent way of doing this, and if England is right, then the development of self-organizing and replicating systems would be “baked in” to thermodynamics under the right conditions. Combine that with the organic chemistry that seems to obtain under astrophysical conditions, and we should, in theory, not be a bit surprised to find living creatures hopping around, full of amino acids and carbohydrates, using sunlight and chemical energy to do their thing.
England’s theory is still fairly speculative, but he seems to be moving right along in applying it to living systems, at least on paper. What I like about this idea is that it would seem to be testable, in both living and nonliving systems. Perhaps something can be done at the level of bacteria, yeast, or even viruses or bacteriophages. I look forward to seeing some data!