Astrobiology (general)

Astrobiology Workshop: Open Questions on the Origins of Life

By Keith Cowing
January 30, 2009

Organizers: Pier Luigi Luisi and Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo

The overall idea behind this workshop is to tackle a number of key questions about the origin of life that still remain unanswered, attempt to clarify why it is so, and to discuss how to progress in our efforts to answer these questions.

In the field of the origins of life, as in many other fields, there is a tendency and a danger for all of us to keep working in our own, fairly narrow areas of expertise and ignore “the big picture”. Thus, from time to time, it is important to ask “where are we in the field and what are the main stumbling blocks on the road?” A similar meeting was already held, in a preliminary form, in Erice, Sicily, in 2006. It created a considerable interest so many researchers asked that we continue the experiment in a more developed form. In fact, one conclusion of the Erice meeting was that it should be repeated, possibly on regular basis (every 2-3 years) and involved more countries and a larger number of young researchers.

The results of this meeting, in terms of abstracts and short communications, will be published in a special issue of Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, as it was the case after the Erice meeting, or in another international journal in the field.

2009 is an excellent year for this type of meeting, as it is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, on the 12th of February 1809, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, on November 24th, 1859. Therefore, our workshop will be a contribution to a host of events that will be organized around the world to celebrate this special anniversary.

The format of the workshop will be quite different from formats of other meetings in the field. Eight questions were chosen from the initial list of 14 questions on the basis of the feedback from potential contributors and a wide representation of the community of researchers interested in the field of origins of life. These questions are:

1. To what extent the origins of life were deterministic or based on contingency?
2. Is life an emergent property?
3. Was the origin of life heterotrophic or autotrophic?
4. What were the origins of catalytic cycles?
5. How plausible is the “RNA world” hypothesis?
6. How to bridge a gap between the protocellular world and the minimal cell?
7. Is life a unity or confederacy?
8. How to define the very origin of life?

The meeting will consist of 8 sessions spread over 4 days (one session in the morning and one in the afternoon). Each session will focus on a single question, and each of 3 panelists (the speakers) will directly address it in brief (20 min) presentations. The presentations will be followed by a discussion between the panelists and one hour of open discussion.
The participants will be divided into small groups, 4-5 people each. Every group will have 30 min to discuss the contributions of the panelists and prepare questions, comments or criticisms. Then, one representative of each group will present these comments to all other participants (max. 10min.). This will be followed by brief answers from the panelists. Thus, each session will last approximately 3.5 hours. This format is aimed at involving all participants, especially young researchers.

For more details about the workshop see:

Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo,
[email protected]


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻