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The genesis lab: exploring life's origins and illuminating a key term in the drake equation (May 2023)


“For life to become intelligent, it must first begin.”


Two different environments have been proposed for the origin of life. Most of the water on Earth is the salty seawater of oceans that cover two thirds of the Earth’s surface, so it seems obvious that life must have begun in the ocean, perhaps at hydrothermal vents that supply a source of energy. 


However, there is an alternative environment that still exists today. Volcanic islands like Hawaii and Iceland emerge from the ocean, and precipitation distilled from salty seawater provides a source of freshwater to hydrothermal sites, commonly called hot springs. The water in hot springs is highly dynamic. Small pools are filled by rain, then dry out when the hot mineral surfaces cause the water to evaporate. Other cycles of wetting and drying occur when geysers erupt and splash water onto surrounding rocks, or when small wavelets at the borders of ponds ebb and flow. 


The chamber on the table is testing whether nucleic acids can be synthesized spontaneously in conditions simulating what the Earth was like four billion years ago. The aluminum disk has 24 wells with glass vials, and each vial contains a solution of nucleotides. The disk is heated to ~80 degrees C and periodically rotates at a speed that exposes each vial to a cycle of wetting and drying every two hours. A flow of carbon dioxide passes through four tubes on each side of the disk to help the water evaporate, and water delivered from two syringes slowly drips into each vial every ten minutes. In a typical overnight session, the vials are
cycled eight times.


The products of cycling are analyzed in multiple ways, and so far, their properties match those of known nucleic acids. One of the most convincing properties is to visualize them using atomic force microscopy. The image below shows polymers composed of guanosine monophosphate and cytidine monophosphate, two of the four nucleotides that compose DNA and RNA. The mixture was exposed to three wet-dry cycles on mica, then flushed with water, dried and viewed. The polymers form tangles that are indistinguishable from DNA  or RNA molecules dried on mica.


What can we conclude from the work so far? First, the results suggest that it is possible for long strands of nucleic acids resembling DNA and RNA to be synthesized by cycles of wetting and drying, conditions that would have been common in volcanic sites on the early Earth and Mars. Second, if life did not invent nucleic acids, how did they become incorporated in the first living cells? The answer is surprisingly simple. The same wet-dry cycles allow membranes to encapsulate nucleic acids if fatty acids are present in the mixture, producing vast numbers of protocells. As this work continues, we plan to develop and test a more complete set of physical and chemical properties which a young planet needs for life to begin. We have proposed a new word – urability – to describe such sets. These properties directly inform the F sub l term in Frank Drake’s equation: the fraction of planets where life emerges and evolves.


Read the full article about the collaboration here:

The Genesis Lab

Two-part Podcast Series (Fall 2022)

BrUce Damer on the Origins of Life on "The Jim RutT Show"

Jim Rutt and Bruce Damer discuss the origins of life, Earth’s conditions 4 billion years ago, urability, organic building blocks, ocean vents theory vs. warm little pond hypothesis, wet-dry cycling, stromatolites as testing analogs, the Progenitor’s role, complexity ratchet and much more.

Listen to the podcast here:

EP 167 Bruce Damer on the Origins of Life

Jim continues his discussion with Bruce Damer on the origins of life. They discuss Darwin’s “warm little pond” hypothesis, niche construction theory, the origin of life as mostly collaborative phenomena, how it relates to contemporary life and our future.

Listen to the podcast here:

EP 171 Bruce Damer Part 2: The Origins of Life – Implications

Figure from article for publication reuse: Simplified urability graphs (A-B) depicting a combination of several factors that overlap to form an urable center in which prebiotic reactions can proceed along a plausible pathway toward the origin of life (credit, the authors).


Urability: A Property of Planetary Bodies That Can Support an Origin of Life
By David Deamer, Francesca Cary and Bruce Damer


The terms habitability and habitable zone were introduced in 1993 and are now commonly used to describe planets with liquid water in which life might exist. However, even though a planet might be habitable, it does not necessarily follow that life could begin there. To call attention to this gap in our knowledge, we have proposed a novel and related term – urability — to describe planets that are not only habitable but also have a set of conditions that allow life to begin. Urability is introduced in an essay published this month in the journal Astrobiology which describes a series of chemical and physical processes that must exist on a planet’s surface if life is to begin. These conditions are primarily based on what we know of life’s origin on Earth, but also provide a framework for estimating the chances that life might begin on early Mars, icy moons like Europa and Enceladus and thousands of recently discovered exoplanets. The new word is pronounced ur-able, (not yur-able) derived from the German prefix ur meaning primitive, original, or earliest.

Find the full article here:
Urability: A Property of Planetary Bodies That Can Support an Origin of Life

David Deamer: How We’re Studying the Origins of Life

Prof. David Deamer of UC Santa Cruz explains the basic principles and demonstrates the laboratory approaches behind the science in this special interview for Quanta Magazine.

Find the full story here:
In Warm, Greasy Puddles, the Spark of Life?

In the Beginning: The Origin & Purpose of Life

For the first time presented to the public, Dr. Bruce Damer illustrates a novel approach to how life started on the Earth, four billion years ago. In this 2015 TEDx Santa Cruz talk he brings the hypothesis to life using the playful example of a Swiss army knife assembling random tools into the first molecular toolset able to divide into living cells. 

Explore further how Dr. Damer links the origin of life to Humanity’s future in space in this second TEDx talk on
SHEPHERD, a spacecraft which can encapsulate an asteroid 

Living Universe

An excerpt from the Screen Australia documentary Living Universe which features Prof. David Deamer and Dr. Bruce Damer performing origin of life research field work at Bumpass Hell, Mount Lassen Volcanic Park in California. See how their experiments, fail, and then quite possibly succeed in a trial and error process as the hot springs steam.

Find more information on the full documentary

Did asteroids bring life to Earth? | Catalyst

Fifty years ago, a meteorite landed near the town of Murchison in Australia. We now know that some of these ancient space rocks carry complex organic compounds that can form membranous compartments and the building blocks of biopolymers. Deposited in pools on volcanic landscapes on the early Earth four billion years ago, these organics provided some of the starting ingredients stirring a primordial chemical soup into the first cellular life. Using these clues, University of New South Wales researchers Anna Wang and Luke Steller join forces with the University of Auckland to carry out exciting new research at hot springs in Rotorua, New Zealand.

This excerpt is part of the larger Australian documentary series
Catalyst: Asteroid Hunters

Origin of life experiments come to a hot spring near you

In a 2018 collaboration between Dr. Bruce Damer and colleagues from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Auckland, new research on the origin of life is carried out at hot springs in Rotorua, New Zealand. The New Zealand Herald captured this first attempt to bring laboratory experiments to form RNA-like polymers and encapsulate them into lipid compartments in live hot spring conditions.

Find the original New Zealand Herald story here:
Local Focus: American scientist researches the origins of life in Rotorua

HADEAN Volcanic Island featuring hot spring geyser filling a hot cycling pool

This 3D animation by Ryan Norkus and Dr. Bruce Damer is set on a conceptual Hadean volcanic island 4 billion years ago in which a periodic geyser erupts and sends a pulse of acidic water downstream into a pool. We then travel around the edges of the pool to a place where solutes and fatty acids form a “bathtub ring”, a key locale which we believe is important to life getting its start. This piece was rendered in 2014 to illustrate the developing Hot Spring Hypothesis being proposed and tested by Prof. David Deamer, Dr. Bruce Damer and colleagues.

Recent Articles

Astrobiology Magazine (Apr 2020)

The Hot Spring Hypothesis for an Origin of Life

Nature Magazine (Dec 2020)

How the first life on Earth survived its biggest threat — water

Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (May 2019)

The Hot Spring Hypothesis for the Origin of Life and the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis

Qualcomm Institute, UC San Diego (Jun 2018)

Discovering the Origins of Life, One Simulation at a Time

Scientific American (Aug 2017)

The New Origins of Life: Life Springs