Teaching triggers search for origins of life on Earth
Like most of my colleagues, my goal is to make sense of the natural world in all of its complexity and weirdness.
Specifically, I strive to grasp how the remarkable diversity of lifeforms on our planet came to be.
In this endeavor, I draw on thought, observation and experiment, but also one additional tool: teaching.
The classroom has always been a space in which I can sharpen my understanding and take a fresh look at my field through the eyes of students not burdened by too many preconceptions.
In fact, I am involved in an ongoing research program that would have never come to be had I not spent some 20 years lecturing on the origin of life to introductory biological sciences students.
In my view, any biology course needs to address the elephant in the room: How did life on Earth get started?
Some have argued that this is not a problem of biology but one of chemistry and planetary science — namely, the transition from geochemistry to biochemistry.
But I believe that any biology student, from undergraduate to full professor, should ponder how life began. Consequently, I have brought the thorny problem of the origin of life into almost all of my classes.
What I did not expect was that this semester-by-semester tickling of my curiosity would eventually steer me to be leading ambitious NASA and National Science Foundation-funded experiments aimed at generating artificial life – new chemical systems capable of perpetuating themselves and evolving adaptively.
As somebody who started out as a tropical field biologist, adding molecular and genetic skill sets only after my doctorate, this is a surprise.
As I revisited the origins of life literature in each class, I came to recognize a pervasive, yet unwarranted, assumption that life’s emergence required extremely rare and improbable circumstances.
If that were true, then experimental work on the origin of life would be of limited use. But what if, as Darwin imagined in 1871, life of the simplest kind can readily arise “ready to undergo still more complex changes” just so long as modern life is not around to devour it?
In that case, it ought to be possible to use evolutionary principles to design laboratory experiments to search for artificial life.
As a result, some five years ago, I decided to take advantage of the privilege of risk that my tenured professorship affords me to test this theory.
Fortunately, I was able to draw in many wonderful collaborators, both at UW-Madison and elsewhere, and to convince grant panels to invest substantially in a novel approach.
And I was also lucky to recruit many wonderful undergraduate and graduate students who share my passion.
While experiments are ongoing, I will say that we have already obtained some intriguing results.
I am optimistic that this research will greatly advance our understanding of how life originated on Earth and where else in the universe analogous systems might exist.
The implication is clear: Teaching can lead to understanding on the part of not only students but also of the professor.