New Approaches to the Origin of Life

Mike Melrose,
Mike Melrose,

Studying the origin of life is an intractable problem, a little like navigating the misty trackless waste that is central Dartmoor. For an event that happened so long ago, we are unlikely to find a ‘smoking gun’. If life originated on another planet and then somehow seeded life on Earth – a possibility that is being taken seriously at the moment – we have even less hope of finding a solution. This was Christopher Southgate’s impression of the field of origins research until a few years ago. Chris is a theologian and former biochemist based at Exeter University, and in his Faraday seminar on New Approaches to the Origin of life: Scientific and Theological last week, he explained why he is now a little a more hopeful. He also described a very unique research programme that combines both science and theology.

Life is generally easier to describe than define. Any description that tries to be all-inclusive will inevitably leave something out. Southgate’s own definition includes three properties: enclosure (inside a membrane or cell wall), metabolism and reproduction. Origin of life researchers tend to focus on either metabolism or reproduction in isolation, but Southgate thinks that a more fruitful approach would be to pursue both at once.

Chris has attended two conferences of the International Society for Study of Origin of Life, and the 2008 meeting was what reminded him of those walks on Dartmoor. In 2011 things seemed to be moving again, with some interesting biochemical work on the synthesis of the components of RNA (an information molecule similar to DNA), and a wave of discovery of planets in other solar systems that look promisingly Earth-like. This new research caused a paradigm shift in Southgate’s thinking. Life may actually be quite widespread in the universe, although the emergence of intelligent life may be a rare event.

The above statements raise no particular conundrum for theology. God desired the origin of life, and is described in the Nicene Creed as ‘the Lord, the giver of life’. There is no need to think that the origin of life might not be a natural phenomenon. The life that eventually emerged on Earth may have arisen from extraordinary set of coincidences, or it may be all over the Universe. In either case, the theological emphasis is different.

If life is unusual, then God’s role may have been (and this is purely speculation) in creating possibilities for life and protecting them from failure. So some primitive cells survived the very harsh conditions that existed on Earth several billion years ago, the large asteroid collision that made the dinosaurs extinct did not affect every living thing, the early hominids were not wiped out by other animals, and so on. It was perhaps a case of protecting processes that led towards the Divine purposes, in the same way that Jesus did not catch flu and die as a child.

On the other hand, if life is common then we can talk about how God created a wonderfully fertile system. I don’t have space here to discuss the possibility of intelligent life which – as far as we know – is vanishingly remote. If thinking beings existed on other planets that would raise all sorts of theological conundrums, many of which Southgate did address in his talk.

Southgate now works on a collaborative research programme with the medical doctor and theologian Andrew Robinson, and origins of life chemist Niles Lehman. They are interested in the interpretation of environmental signals by ribozymes: RNA molecules that act as enzymes, and may be a remnant of an early form. For living things, being able to respond to their surroundings is important for survival. There is a risk that a sign like a chemical or temperature gradient may be misinterpreted, but if it leads to food the reward is worth the risk.

One important aspect of signal interpretation is cooperation. Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley have already shown, in another biology-theology collaboration, the importance of cooperation in evolution. Before evolution can take place, however, you need replication. If a number of RNA fragments were able to act together, that might have been a precursor to replication. If cooperation was involved in the development of such early life forms, that raises some interesting questions about whether the cooperation we see among animals is not a ‘higher’ property, but typical of life in general.

10 thoughts on “New Approaches to the Origin of Life

  1. michala October 24, 2013 / 11:04 am

    Good article. Science is based on mathematics and so the probability of life emerging from natural causes is against all odds( law of probability ) although some may argue not entirely impossible. But no one was a witness to the actual beginning and the conditions assumed by us during the big bang and early universe is speculation. We have an idea of the age of the universe but this is subject to change.the rare earth theory( brown) may help to explain the paradox of why there should be life but isn’t in the universe. It doesn’t dismiss the idea of life on other planets but argues intelligent life in the universe could be a 13 billion year event.NASA only expect to find microbes on other planets.

    tries to explain how and why there appears to be absence of life in our galaxy and universe. The theory claims it


    • transeptor October 29, 2013 / 3:19 am

      I thought that Christians believed in he Bible, which puts the Big Bang in 4004BC, but maybe these sophisticated townies just sick to the New Testament. What is so amusing is having abandoned the impossibly short span (in the face of, for example, Geology) is that michala has absorbed the next level of received, or conventional wisdom, which presumably why s/he quotes “a 13 billion year event” (being the whole number approx, to the age quoted for The Universe. S/he also quotes ‘the big bang’ and early universe’ in this context. But 13 billion is actually an absurdly small number, in which this small lump of rock (3rd from the Sun) accounts for over 1/3 of the Whole Age Of Everything.

      Don’t forget, this Galaxy alone has 100x1000x1000000 (a hundred thousand million) stars in it.

      I myself don’t believe in Big Bang (See my book (in preparation) ‘Why There’s No Big Bang’.

      Without Googling it, I believe that Panspermia was believed by Fred Hoyle, and Chandrashekar
      e.g. “Life cannot have had a random beginning … The trouble is that there are about two thousand enzymes, and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only one part in 1040,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.” (
      Fred Hoyle and N. Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1981)


      • michala October 31, 2013 / 1:06 pm

        Hello its michala – she! Thanks for your comments. Yep let’s cherry pick the bible to fit the time scale ( geology ) it seems they have abandoned mathematics ( law of probability) when it comes to the origins of life.both drakes equation and wards rare earth theory are valid until these theories are disproved ie if they find life on other planets! Where there is a lack of evidence or equivocal evidence ( interpreted differently )


        • michala October 31, 2013 / 1:12 pm

          They make assumptions about the conditions of the early universe and geology but both are forensic or historical and open to interpretation. They know there is radiation in space and they know certain facts but NASA is always making new discoveries that appear to contradict our understanding of the law of physics.


          • michala October 31, 2013 / 1:39 pm

            In the beginning was information! It seems more logical to assume there is a creator than not.its not unusual or wrong uphold that belief, many scientists ( einstein) and others could not imagine a universe without a higher intelligence or power which maintains the universe.there is more truth in the bible than people know .a good interpretation comes from a good understanding


            • transeptor November 1, 2013 / 3:18 am

              For MICHALA, Seems wrong to enter into a discussion here, so please post to :- [can’t edit at least my own posts, and then I’d have your address too] Maybe you’re a mobile?


              • michala November 1, 2013 / 3:50 pm

                Thank you!


  2. transeptor November 3, 2013 / 1:26 am


    In her comments on the previous article, Michala refers to, “drakes equation and wards rare earth theory”, names which meant nothing to me, except to me, rare earths form part of the periodic table of elements!

    But this phrase is also used, like ‘Drake’s Theorem’ to estimate the chance of finding intelligent life out there.

    Actually what they did was to show exactly what is wrong with this use of statistics.

    Having done Statistics as a post-grad back in the 70′s I am impressed with its pervasive reach now.
    But proper probability is about an existing background, and a repeatable experiment. To use it to discuss some kind of chance which awaits us will, as Micala says, evaporate once we do find Intelligence out there. This is the wrong use of chance.

    (John Conway, the great mathematician, had no time for probability at all.)


    • michala November 3, 2013 / 11:48 am

      Hello.again this is a matter of interpretation. If & when intelligent ” life” is found on other planets this will have profound religious & scientific implications.the use and interpretation of statistics & law of probability is interesting.


      • michala November 3, 2013 / 1:46 pm

        Notably drakes equation and the use/ interpretation of statistics should be used in observable space.the most distant galaxy observed is 30 billion light years away.therefore law of probability and theories are only estimates when dealing with forensic or historical science or the un observed deep is assumption the laws of physics


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