Kiwi professor sheds light on how life began

File photo / Thinkstock
File photo / Thinkstock

A Kiwi mathematics professor is helping to shed light on how life began on Earth up to four billion years ago.

The work of Mike Steel, the University of Canterbury's director of Biomathematics Research Centre, has suggested a necessary condition for early life is the formation of a "chemical reaction network".

Professor Steel is part of a team using maths to help understand how such chemical systems can come about, how large they might have been and how they would have acted.

"We are seeking to find out if the formation of these first steps of life were an amazingly lucky accident or something that might be expected," he said.

"Many researchers find it hard to imagine how such a molecular network could have formed spontaneously from the chemical environment of early earth.

"But how else did it start? Some people propose that life was seeded from other parts of the universe, but that poses the question, 'How did it start there?'."

Professor Steel said he believed that "the formation of life, given the conditions on earth, was not particularly unlikely" considering the chemical network at the time.

"But whether there are other life forms in the universe staring out into space and wondering if they are alone or not, that's a totally different question," he said.

Work by Professor Steel and other researchers on how life began on Earth will be presented at the Origins of Life meeting in Princeton, US, next week and at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland next month.

He said the origin of life was quite controversial among scientists with many theories but relatively little data.

"Our findings are helping to provide a mathematical explanation and they suggest that the spontaneous emergences of the first steps of life are more likely than had been supposed by many working in this field," Professor Steel said.

The work is a collaboration with former UC post-doctorate Dr Wim Hordijk from Switzerland, US-based theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and other scientists working on the origins of life and synthetic biology.


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