ASU researchers propose new way to look at the dawn of life


December 12, 2012

One of the great mysteries of life is how it began. What physical process transformed a nonliving mix of chemicals into something as complex as a living cell?

For more than a century, scientists have struggled to reconstruct the key first steps on the road to life. Until recently, their focus has been trained on how the simple building blocks of life might have been synthesized on the early Earth, or perhaps in space. But because it happened so long ago, all chemical traces have long been obliterated, leaving plenty of scope for speculation and disagreement. Download Full Image

Now, a novel approach to the question of life’s origin, proposed by two Arizona State University scientists, attempts to dramatically redefine the problem. The researchers – Paul Davies, an ASU Regents’ Professor and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Sara Walker, a NASA post-doctoral fellow at the Beyond Center – published their theory in the current issue of the Royal Society journal Interface. Their article is titled “The algorithmic origins of life.”

In a nutshell, the authors shift attention from the “hardware” – the chemical basis of life – to the “software” – its information content. To use a computer analogy, chemistry explains the material substance of the machine, but it won’t function without a program and data. Davies and Walker suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way that living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.

“When we describe biological processes we typically use informational narratives – cells send out signals, developmental programs are run, coded instructions are read, genomic data are transmitted between generations and so forth,” Walker said. “So identifying life’s origin in the way information is processed and managed can open up new avenues for research.”

“We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable,” added Davies. “We suggest that life may be characterized by its distinctive and active use of information, thus providing a roadmap to identify rigorous criteria for the emergence of life. This is in sharp contrast to a century of thought in which the transition to life has been cast as a problem of chemistry, with the goal of identifying a plausible reaction pathway from chemical mixtures to a living entity.”

Focusing on informational development helps move away from some of the inherent disadvantages of trying to pin down the beginnings of chemical life.

“Chemical-based approaches,” Walker said, “have stalled at a very early stage of chemical complexity – very far from anything we would consider ‘alive.’ More seriously they suffer from conceptual shortcomings in that they fail to distinguish between chemistry and biology.”

“To a physicist or chemist, life seems like ‘magic matter,’” Davies explained. “It behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system. Such lifelike properties include autonomy, adaptability and goal-oriented behavior – the ability to harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions.”

“We believe the transition in the informational architecture of chemical networks is akin to a phase transition in physics, and we place special emphasis on the top-down information flow in which the system as a whole gains causal purchase over its components,” Davies added. “This approach will reveal how the logical organization of biological replicators differs crucially from trivial replication associated with crystals (non-life). By addressing the causal role of information directly, many of the baffling qualities of life are explained.”

The authors expect that, by re-shaping the conceptual landscape in this fundamental way, not just the origin of life, but other major transitions will be explained, for example, the leap from single cells to multi-cellularity.

In addition to being a post-doctoral fellow at the Beyond Center, Walker is affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Mountain View, Calif., and the Blue Marble Space Institute, Seattle.

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School of Art Regents' Professor named one of 50 USA Fellows


December 12, 2012

Kurt Weiser, Regents' Professor of Ceramics in the ASU School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, was named a 2012 United States Artists Fellow. Fifty fellowships are awarded to the nation’s finest artists in areas from crafts and traditional arts to theatre arts, dance, music, architecture and design, visual arts, literature and media. Weiser was the only Arizona artist chosen among 438 artists nominated for this prestigious fellowship which includes an unrestricted $50,000 grant.

“Students and fellow faculty know well the talent and dedication of Professor Kurt Weiser as an artist and teacher,’’ said Adriene Jenik, director of the ASU School of Art. “To have him acknowledged as one of the finest artists in the country, alongside other luminaries in a spectrum of creative practices, reminds us of the honor we have to be working alongside and learning from him.” Download Full Image

Although Weiser hasn’t decided exactly how he will spend the fellowship, he expects to use the money toward his art. “It’s an odd sort of mix of freedom and security to be able to do what I’ve thought about doing and haven’t had the nerve,” Weiser said about receiving the grant. “I feel so very fortunate.’’

First, he plans to complete a project for an exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. After that he said for the first time he could consider hiring people to help him with his latest artistic endeavor: making ceramic globes of the world mounted on elegant custom bronze stands. He also intends to use part of the money to expand his studio in Montana where he spends his summers.

A member of the ASU School of Art faculty since 1988, Weiser is one of three award-winning faculty members in the school’s ceramics program, which is ranked seventh in the nation by U. S. News & World Report. “Whether making functional pottery reminiscent of Sun Dynasty ware or his skill as a Postmodern china painter on porcelain, Kurt has been extremely successful with the many shifts and developments his art has taken him in an illustrious career spanning four decades,” said Peter Held, curator of the ASU Art Museum Ceramics Research Center. He credits Weiser’s time as director of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts with allowing him “to experiment with a wide range of firing techniques and forming processes, always amazing those around him with his technical knowledge and adept handling of clay.”

United States Artists was created with $22 million in seed money from such prominent foundations as Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential and Rasmuson to elevate the status of artists with sizeable, unrestricted grants. Since the first fellowships were given seven years ago, United States Artists have awarded $17.5 million in grants to 365 of the nation’s top artists, according to Debra Dysart, director of development operations. Other donors, including the Windgate Charitable Foundation that funded Weiser’s fellowship, also have stepped up to support the program.

This year’s fellows include emerging, mid-career and established artists from 19 states who were chosen based on their expertise in the art form they practice and the impact they could have in their field, explained Dysart. The rigorous selection process begins with artists and experts chosen as nominators by the organization in each of the eight arts categories. The nominators recommend artists who are in turn asked to complete applications. Panels of artists and experts then review those applications and award the fellowships.

Weiser is one of six honored in the crafts and traditional arts category. The group also includes Nicholas Galanin, an internationally recognized Tlingit/Aleut multimedia artist who is among five Native American artists participating in the School of Art’s 2013 biennial Map(ing) Project from Jan. 3-10, 2013.

For more on Kurt Weiser and the ASU School of Art Ceramics program, visit: art.asu.edu/ceramics.

For more on United States Artists and the 2012 Fellowships, visit: USA Fellows.