Gordon Research Conferences

Gordon Research Conferences


Origin of Life

July13-18, 2003
Bates College, Maine

Chair: J. Peter Gogarten, University of Connecticut
Vice-Chair: George D. Cody, Carnegie Institution of Washington


  • The subsurface as an abode and potential cradle for life's origin on Earth and other bodies in our solar system

Discussion Leader: Michael A. Meyer (Senior Scientist for Astrobiology NASA Headquarters)

Derek R. Lovely (Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst):
Hydrogen-based communities reducing iron or carbon dioxide on ancient and modern Earth

Jack D. Farmer (Arizona State Univ.):  
Exploring for fossil biosignatures in subsurface hydrothermal deposits

  • How late/early could the most recent common ancestor have lived? Fossil, molecular and geological evidence

Discussion Leader: Stephen J. Mojzsis (University of Colorado, Boulder):
All extant life is the product of billions of years of coupled biological and geological evolution, yet all biological organisms have a common and ancient pedigree as revealed in molecular phylogenetic studies.  When did continuous biological evolution emerge?  How can we determine when (or if) the Last Universal Common Ancestor ever lived?

Christopher H. House (Pennsylvania State University):
What do gene sequences say about the antiquity of life?

Roger E. Summons (Massachusetts Institute of Technology):
Molecular signatures of Late Archean biota

Mark A. van Zuilen (Scripps Inst. Ocean./CRPG-Nancy): LINK
Tracing life in the earliest terrestrial rock record

  • Weird Life - possible alternative chemistries for extraterrestrial life LINK

Discussion Leader: James P. Ferris (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
The speakers will give presentations that present new and unorthodox theories for the origins of life.  These theories are so "off the wall" that the Chair considers them to be "weird".  They are guaranteed to expand the listeners horizons when they consider the origins of life.

Steven A. Benner (Univ. of Florida):
Beyond speculation. Synthetic organic chemistry to constrain universal biosignatures and models for the origin of life

Art Weber (SETI Institute):
Life at the Bottom of an Evolutionary Biogenesis

  • The early atmosphere and early archean environments on Earth

Discussion Leader: Bruce Runnegar (NASA Astrobiology Institute, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California)
Two of the presentations will
explore the evolution of the atmosphere on the early Earth in the context of recent discoveries of mass independent fractionations of sulfur isotopes, the third one will discuss the early impact history of early Earth. 

Gary Byerly (Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge):  (LINK)
Large meteor impacts on early Earth

James Farquhar (Univ. of Maryland):
Multiple Sulfur Isotope analyses:  Applications for the study of the Earth's early atmosphere, early life, and early environments

Alex Pavlov (Univ. of Colorado, Boulder):
Hazy Archean atmosphere. Impact of organic and sulfur aerosols  on the Archean environment

  • Solar and extrasolar planets

Discussion Leader: Bruce M. Jakosky (Univ. of Colorado, Boulder)
This session will provide an update on the detection of extrasolar planets, discuss and present data on the
complex atmospheric and surface chemistry of Titan-like planets and on detectors that directly measure the enantiomeric excess of a chiral molecule. 

Paul Butler (Carnegie Institution of Washington):
The Near Term Future of Extrasolar Planet Research

Jack L. Beauchamp (California Institute of Technology):
Exploratory Studies Related to the Origin and Detection of Life in the Environments of Solar and Extrasolar Planets

  • Extent of lateral gene transfer in early evolution

Discussion Leader: Janet L. Siefert (Rice Univ.)
The Tree of Life predicts a last common ancestor to all life.  But, is this tree a true depiction of organismal evolution and if so, can we understand the nature of the last common ancestor it implies? This session will report the impact horizontal gene transfer, rather than vertical transmission, has on our understanding of the properties and nature of a 'cenancestor' to all life.  The three speakers represent different ends of the opinion spectrum that ranges from a cenancestor that was pretty much like a modern prokaryote, to one that was described as a progenote (an organism that existed before a tight coupling between geno- and phenotype), and from a web-like organismal phylogeny to a more conventional tree of life.  

W. Ford Doolittle (Dalhousie University, Halifax):
If a Phylogenetic Tree Falls in the Forest ...

Gary Olsen (University of Illinois):
A Tree in the Jungle of Gene Histories: or, Don't Trip on the Vines

Antonio Lazcano (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México):
The search for the last common ancestor: past imperfect?

  • Origin and amplification of biomolecular chirality

Discussion Leader: Sandra Pizzarello (Arizona State Univ.):  
The exclusive one-handedness of amino acids and sugars is essential to the formation, structure, and function of biopolymers and is a defining molecular trait of terrestrial life. The emergence and evolution of this asymmetry is not known and remains a key question for our understanding of the origin of life. Analytical studies of the last decade have uncovered means of large amplification of small enantiomeric excesses in molecules, mineral crystals, and dynamic systems. They will be presented and discussed in their possible relation to the origin of homochirality.

Kenso Soai (Tokyo University of Science): LINK
Asymmetric Autocatalysis and The Origins of Chirality

Dilip K. Kondepudi (Wake Forest University): 
Origin of Biomolecular Asymmetry: What do Theory and Experiments Tell Us

  • Sequence evolution in the RNA world and beyond

Discussion Leader: Donald H. Burke (Indiana Univ.)
Advances in experimental evolution, a better theoretical understanding of networks, and the availability of  more than 100 completely sequenced provide a new outlook on sequence evolution.  How did biological evolution explore sequence and structure space?  What were the roles of compartmentalization and recombination?  Was early evolution fundamentally different from the more the more recent sequence evolution?  How did macromolecules with novel properties emerge?

Jack W. Szostak (Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School):    
TBA (RNA in vitro evolution, RNA based RNA polymerase, linking RNA and protein evolution in vitro)

Peter Schuster (Universität Wien, Austria):
From RNA sequences to structures and beyond -- evolution in an RNA model

Eugene Koonin (National Center for Biotechnology Information, NLM, NIH):  
Protein evolution prior to the Last Common Ancestor

  • Thursday Evening Lecture:

Louis Lerman (Pteranodon Ventures and Philipps University, Marburg, FRG)
“The Primordial Bubble: Symmetry Breaking and the Origin of Structure.”


Special Poster and Discussion Sections will focus on

o       "What organisms were the founding contributors to the eukaryotic cell and what are the early branching eukaryotes?"

o       Can we determine the topology and the root of the tree of life in the presence of horizontal gene transfer?"

Prebiotic Chemistry

plus a  general poster session

All posters will be up for the whole conference!

Go to GRC

Go to GRC Origin of Life Conference Site