NASA Astrobiology Program

Impressions from the San Sebastian meeting Open Questions in the Origin of Life (OQOL)

By Keith Cowing
June 15, 2009

by Pier-Luigi Luisi

The 2009 San Sebastian meeting on OQOL was the follow-up to an analogous meeting held in Erice, Sicily three years ago. The general idea was to identify and discuss the areas in the field that are still “in the darkness”, i.e. remain poorly understood despite their importance. We asked what were the reasons of our persisting ignorance, and what could we do to shed light on the “dark” areas. The meeting was not organized as a series of standard lectures (the usual “talk-and-run-away” format). Instead, it was centered on several selected questions, one per half-day, which were first discussed by a panel of experts and then by all participants. The questions had been previously chosen through worldwide polling of researchers in the field. It was a very intense meeting – in four days we covered eight questions.

Judging from the comments of the participants, the meeting was quite successful. The intellectual level of scientific presentations and discussions was high. Although controversies surrounding the questions were not hidden and the exchange of arguments was quite intense, it all happened in a pleasant atmosphere of friendship and honesty. The intellectual level of the debates was high also because, and this was a nice characteristic of the meeting, a number of philosophical questions related to the origins of life, such as determinism, contingency, emergence, reductionism, etc. were explicitly considered. Both people who often participated in this kind of debates and those who were not used to this format enjoyed it very much. Although none of the open questions was solved, arguments surrounding each of them were clearly laid out and problems with resolving the questions were discussed. This gave everybody a deep sense of accomplishment.

Extended abstracts from the presentations at the meeting will be published in the Origin of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere in a few months.

Andrew Pohorille

Most scientific meetings concentrate on reviewing the latest accomplishments in a given field. It is quite rare, but equally important to have a whole meeting devoted to unanswered questions and controversial issues in the field. The OQOL meeting filled this gap. I found two features of the meeting particularly appealing. One was open and in-depth discussion of both supporting and contradicting arguments related to a number of controversial issues such as RNA world vs. metabolism first scenarios or autotrophic vs. heterotrophic origins of life. Most likely each participant weighted the arguments somewhat differently, but probably everybody left with a notion that all the major issues are still far from settled. Another appealing feature was a very good combination of experimental, theoretical and, yes, epistemological arguments.

This was in contrast to a view expressed by some at the last ISSOL meeting that the origin of life is a strictly experimental field. In my opinion, this view is not just unnecessarily restrictive but makes the problem of the origin of life unsolvable. On a less bright side, I was somewhat disappointed that the group, despite its intellectual strength, did not come up with concrete approaches to solving the OQOLs that were discussed at the meeting, although I realize that my expectations might have been too high. Finally, the meeting would gain if students present in the audience were more actively involved in the discussion. In general, it was an interesting and important meeting.

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) 🖖🏻