Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Nobel Laureate on the Boundary between Chemistry and Life

Jack Szostak shows videos of his attempts to create life in a test tube.

A Nobel Laureate on the Boundary between Chemistry and Life

A critical reader commented on a previous column that I’ve been blind to something obvious when it comes to abiogenesis – the formation of life from non-life:

Once you bring up abiogenesis, that's a loser for naturalists/atheists. You need some type of genetic code, a method of replication, and metabolism all at the same time for a group of chemicals to survive for natural selection to work. I'm skipping over a bunch of other things, like all the amino acids have to have left-handed chirality, etc. And we keep having discoveries that push the sudden appearance of life (once conditions permitted) to just a blink of the eye in geological terms. "What could be the alternative to life coming from nonliving matter?"

(He’s quoting me there)

So blind in assuming certain assumptions... it's not about the need for matter. The heart of the matter is the need for intelligence to organize matter.

One thing my previous columns have been lacking is the perspective of Jack Szostak, a Harvard professor, Nobel Laureate, and a world expert on the origin of life. He’s a hard man to track down, but I intercepted him earlier this week at Penn State, where he was visiting, to get his perspective on the question of life's origin. Szostak and colleagues are trying to get inanimate matter to organize itself into living cells in a test tube. In Monday's column and post, I’ll have more about Szostak’s attempt to create life, and his view on the need for a God to do this.

In one of several talks he gave at Penn State, Szostak showed intriguing videos illustrating some of the steps he’s making along the way from chemistry to biology. Click Here to see them. The last ones, showing the formation of membranes, look particularly dynamic and life-like.


About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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