The question of how life began on a molecular level 3.5 to 4 billion years ago has been a longstanding problem in science.
However, recent mathematical research by a leading New Zealand mathematical researcher from the University of Canterbury (UC) and other experts has shed light on a possible mechanism by which life may have been born out of the chemical soup that existed on Earth.
UC mathematics professor Mike Steel said today a necessary condition for early life seems to be the formation of a chemical reaction network.
``We are using maths to help understand how such systems can come about, how large they might have been and whether their formation would be incredibly unlikely or expected if you have sufficiently many molecules of different types floating around.
``We are seeking to find out if the formation of these first steps of life were an amazingly lucky accident, or something that might be expected. Many researchers find it hard to imagine how such a molecular network could have formed spontaneously from the chemical environment of early Earth.
``But how else did it start? Some people propose that life was seeded from other parts of the universe, but that poses the question, `how did it start there?’.
``For scientists the aim in origin of life research is not to find out how life actually began, that's something we may never know, but rather how it might have begun so we know a plausible scenario for its formation by natural processes.
``My personal view is that the formation of life, given the conditions on Earth, was not particularly unlikely. But whether there are other life forms in the universe staring out into space and wondering if they are alone or not - that's a totally different question.’’
Work by Professor Steel and other researchers on how life began on Earth will be presented at the Origins of Life meeting in Princeton, USA, next week and at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Switzerland next month. He said the origin of life is quite controversial among scientists with many theories but relatively little data.
``Our findings are helping to provide a mathematical explanation and they suggest that the spontaneous emergences of the first steps of life are more likely than had been supposed by many working in this field.’’
The work is a collaboration with former UC post-doctorate Dr Wim Hordijk from Switzerland, US-based theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and other scientists working on the origins of life and synthetic biology. They are now making use of the BlueFern supercomputer at UC.
They have proposed several competing theories for how life on Earth could have started even before the first genes or living cells came to be.
``Despite differences between various proposed scenarios, one theme in common is a network of molecules that have the ability to work together to jumpstart and speed up their own replication — two necessary ingredients for life.
``However, many researchers find it hard to imagine how such a molecular network could have formed spontaneously - with no precursors - from the chemical environment of early Earth,’’ Professor Steel said.