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ICTP's origins-of-life conference attracted many of the world's most eminent scientists in the field, including numerous researchers from the developing world.

 

Life in a Bottle

 

A standing ovation greeted Stanley L. Miller following his lecture delivered on 16 September at ICTP's 7th Conference on Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life.
Confined to his wheelchair by a double stroke and speaking with painful difficulty, the 73-years-old chemist, now professor emeritus at the University of San Diego, California, USA, offered a personal account of his seminal origins-of-life experiment in the autumn of 1952, in which he synthesised several amino acids (the 'building blocks' of proteins) in prebiotic conditions.
The experiment marked the first successful laboratory experiment illustrating the chemical origin of life, which transformed the field from philosophical speculations to hard science.
At the time Miller was just a 23-years-old graduate student at the University of Chicago, Illinois, USA, where he was inspired by a recent lecture given by his mentor, Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey (1893 - 1981). The goal of Miller's experiment was to recreate, in a laboratory setting, the Earth's early oceanic-atmospheric ecosystem, which was presumably taking shape around 4 billion years ago, as the scorching temperatures and searing winds following our planet's formation began to subside.
To create this micro-environment, Miller subjected a mixture of methane, ammonia, water vapour and hydrogen to an electrical spark continuously for a few days. What Miller detected in the flask startled him: faint residues of protolife amino acid glycine.
Eager to broaden his findings, he then repeated the experiment over a week-long period. What he then detected startled him even more: an oily material had formed along the lining of the flask that was embedded with several amino acids.
Encouraged by Urey, Miller submitted an article describing his findings to Science. Plainly titled "A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions," the article was published in the 15 May 1953 edition of the journal. It didn't take long for the scientific community to realise the profound implications of his experiment.
The silver plaque that ICTP director K.R. Sreenivasan gave to Miller to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his historic article elegantly displays the scheme of the spark-discharge apparatus that produced for the first time organic molecules in a test tube. The apparatus itself has come to symbolise the 'origins' of origins-of-life research.

Miller

Stanley Miller receiving the plaque from K.R. Sreenivasan


Today, the world of astrobiology that Miller has been instrumental in creating concerns itself with a wide range of scientific explorations that extend from the mundane confines of scientific laboratories to the most remote and exotic corners of our planet and universe.
These explorations, for example, include tabletop experiments like Miller's, seeking to recreate conditions where life takes hold; examinations of volcanic ocean beds where stressful ecological conditions may resemble those of the earliest days of Earth; explorations of such planets and satellites as Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa in search of harrowing ecosystems where primitive life may still exist and, in fact, may have originated; and a blending of chemical and biological investigations to examine--both through experimentation and modelling--how inorganic material can, under certain conditions, be transformed into organic material.
More than 120 people from 28 different nations attended ICTP's conference. Among them were many of the most renowned scientists in the field of astrobiology/bioastronomy, a rapidly evolving, interdisciplinary initiative that draws on research in astronomy, radioastronomy, planetary science, molecular biology, ecology, chemistry, geology and oceanography.
Among the participants were these 'star-studded' scientists:


- Frank Drake, founder and president of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, Mountain View, California, USA, which seeks to determine whether other distant life forms exist in the universe by scanning the skies with Earth-bound radiotelescopes for faint discernible radiowaves that may have been produced and broadcast by other beings.
- Michel Mayor, professor at Observatoire de Geneve, in Switzerland, who in 1995 discovered the first non-solar system planet orbiting a distant star, indicating that other planetary systems anchored by their own stars--just as ours is anchored by the Sun--could exist elsewhere in the vast reaches of space.
- Rosalind Grymes, deputy director, US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Astrobiology Institute (NAI), in Washington, DC, a partnership between NASA and 16 leading institutions in the United States that focusses on interdisciplinary research in the field of astrobiology.
- Torrence Johnson, lead project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, for the Galileo spacecraft, which spent eight years in orbit around the solar system's most massive planet, Jupiter, and its four main moons. The Galileo spacecraft, which was named after the famed Italian astronomer who discovered Jupiter's moons in 1610, gathered a wealth of information about these distant celestial bodies, suggesting that primitive life could indeed exist beneath the icy crust of Jupiter's largest moon, Europa. Galileo's successful mission ended just three days after the close of ICTP's conference. All told, Galileo travelled some 4.6 billion kilometres in space, opening up a distant, once-dark world to scientific exploration and discovery.


ICTP's series of conferences on the origin of life began in 1992 under the able leadership of the late Cyril Ponnamperuma, an internationally renowned biochemist from the University of Maryland, USA, who was born in Sri Lanka. Today, the triennial conferences are largely organised by ICTP's staff scientist Julian Chela-Flores, who works closely with Tobias Owen, professor of planetary science at the University of Hawaii, USA, and François Raulin, director of Laboratoire Interuniversitaire des Systemes Atmospheriques (LISA), Paris, France.
"While there are other astrobiology conferences that have gained an international reputation over the past decade, including the Exo/Astrobiology Network Association (EANA) held in Europe each year since 2001," notes Chela-Flores, "the triennial event at ICTP has emerged as one of the world's most noteworthy global gatherings of experts in the field."
Chela-Flores adds that "Not only have we been able to attract the world's greatest researchers, but we have designed the conference in ways that make it a seminal event for astrobiologists from the developing world. About one-third of the participants this year came from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And, with such countries as Brazil, China and India showing keen interest in space programmes and cutting-edge biological research, including origins-of-life research, the involvement of scientists from developing countries is bound to grow in the years ahead."

 

THE THIRD WORLD AND THE WORLD BEYOND
As president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL), I have witnessed first-hand the intense interest that issues related to the origin of life generate among scientists in the developing world.

Lazcano

Antonio Lazcano


Eminent scientists from India and Mexico are devoting their careers to this issue; regional groups in the South dedicated to the topic are as active and rigorous as their counterparts in the North; and gifted young scientists from the South continue to flock to the field despite limited funding and job opportunities.
Why is this so? Doesn't the developing world face enough problems in the here and now not to be investing resources and brain power to the then and there? Shouldn't its scientists be more concerned about examining how to improve the well-being of people today than in understanding how life began?
On behalf of my fellow 'origins-of-life' scientists in the South, let me try to answer these critical questions.
First of all, we pursue this topic because it is clear that the extraordinary development of biological sciences during the past few decades has made it necessary to examine not only the mechanisms by which life evolved, but how it originated. On the one hand, such pursuits are motivated by a scientist's enduring desire to know what is not known; on the other hand, seeking answers to origins-of-life questions could have a profound impact on broad areas of biology, chemistry and physics that lie beyond the subfield itself.
Second, we pursue this topic because, although one may contend that countries with severe economic and social problems should devote their meagre resources to applied science, the debate over applied science versus pure science is a false one: There is only good science and bad science, and clearly each nation has an obligation to embrace the former in all fields of inquiry.
Third, we pursue this topic because nurturing a scientific tradition in developing countries, regardless of the issue under investigation, helps in the long run to forge a science-based cultural identity. Developing countries should be seen not just as potential sources of good researchers for developed nations, but as extraordinary intellectual reservoirs for the advancement of global science.
The importance of such endeavours for the entire world is obvious: Although science is universal, different scientific traditions and cultural backgrounds represent a vital resource for the advancement of science.
In contrast to what happens in the USA, where creationists continually challenge the teaching and study of evolution for religious reasons, such groups are not found in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Despite our problems, we still adhere to the 19th century liberal belief that education and knowledge are the driving force in individual and social development.
Moreover, in some cases, the appeal of problems like those of the origin of life is deeply rooted. In Mexico, for example, Alfonso L. Herrera, a distinguished naturalist who played a major role in teaching and the founding of museums, worked for many decades developing a theory on the origin of life. Such stories testify to the interest and devotion that scientists in our countries have shown for this topic. For them and those who have followed in their footsteps, the question is not why--but how.

Antonio Lazcano
Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico
Mexico City

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