It's a case of weird and wonderful science - using hot springs to find the origins of life.

Leading American scientist Dr Bruce Damer is at Rotorua's Hell's Gate conducting research trials aiming to answer the age old question, how did we get here?

"It's very exciting, really revolutionary science, very current for the twenty-first century," Damer said.

"Out of this might emerge whole new technologies for chemistry, medicine, and even artificial intelligence, if we can identify the properties of the cycle that drove the origin of life - effectively an engine of creation."


Damer's research could turn previous "origins of life" science on its head.

"There is an emerging insight that perhaps life emerged not from competing individuals, but from a network.

"That a collaborative community was the tap-root of the tree of life. This would be a large philosophical shift for humanity - that our common deepest ancestry was a community, a community in collaboration."

Damer is searching for RNA, a nucleic acid and the basis of all living cells.

"What we suspect is that a form of RNA could have been one of the first polymers supporting a form of pre-life.

"This RNA could first have been synthesised at random through wet-dry cycling in small hot pools, encapsulated into simple protocells and then subject to selection as pools refilled, as they do in hot springs like the ones we see in Rotorua."

He's also hoping to conduct research into the formation of a molecular structure, much closer to home.

"It's possible that a DNA-like and peptide polymer could also have formed in an environment like this with short double helical polymers, self-assembling in the same cycles.


"Therefore all of these types of polymers would have been present and interacted to 'boot up' the functions of life. The DNA would have worked as a data store for the RNA, which would then interact with the peptides to move the whole interacting system toward cellular life.

For years scientists have accepted the theory that life began in hydrothermal vents in the ocean.

Charles Darwin once speculated that biological molecules might form in a "warm little pond" and Damer believes this to be much closer to the truth.

"If we can show to our colleagues and to the world, that we can self-assemble an important biopolymer of life, called RNA, in a hot spring pool that is cycling, in conditions from early Earth," Damer said.

"Then our colleagues will come to New Zealand to try and repeat these experiments.

"It will create a movement, a paradigm shift in origin of life thinking, from Darwin's warm little pond, to a cycling, warm little pool."


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