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Princeton Origins Pow-wow - Where is the Rest of the Media?

Princeton Origins Pow-wow - Where is the Rest of the Media?

By Suzan Mazur


Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 (ET)

As the elevator door opened last night in the lobby of the Nassau Hotel, in walked Andrew Pohorille, NASA's senior most scientist on Origin of Life. It was just minutes after I'd filed my report noting Pohorille's comment that the death of the RNA world has been exaggerated. When I realized who he was, the doors closed, too late to introduce myself. But I bumped into him again this morning in Jadwin Hall at Princeton's Origins of Life conference , alone having a quiet coffee, and we struck up a conversation.

Pohorille has a certain calm and sincerity that draws you in. Born in Poland, he speaks with an elegant clarity of mind and has retained his charming European accent. We talked through some of our points of disagreement. He told me that while he is not an RNA world enthusiast, he does indeed think relevant work is being done on it.

We talked a bit about Carl Woese as well, who NASA had awarded an $8 million grant to months before his death for an investigation of the origin and evolution of life. I asked why he thought Carl Woese had not been honored in his lifetime by the Nobel Committee. Pohorille said it was simply because the great work Woese was doing was outside of the official Nobel categories.

Steve Benner, who heads the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, seemed amused by the controversy about the death of the RNA world and said he planned to mention it in his upcoming talk. I told Benner, as I had Pohorille, that I'd conferred with the experts on this matter. Benner said this is Origin of Life -- "there are no experts."

I was then informed that I was being credentialed and admitted inside the event.

Laura Landweber, principal organizer, and I talked at the coffee station with Sara Walker about the fact that one third of the presenters were women. Landweber suggested that next month's Origin of Life meeting at CERN should consider Princeton a precedent and invite a significant number of women to speak.

Sara Walker gave a commanding presentation on "The algorithmic origins of life" in red stretch jeans and tailored jacket, tossing a marvelous mane of hair and sparking a round of followup questions. One from Nobel Laureate Phil Anderson about "Stu Kauffman's point of view that you have to go through energetics first, thermodynamics first and only then. . ." Outside the conference room, Anderson told me he was referring to Kauffman's article "Whispers From Carnot" published some years ago in the Santa Fe Institute book.

Also commenting on the Walker lecture was Loren Williams of Georgia Institute of Technology who addressed complexity and the fact that "there are a much higher diversity of molecules in the abiotic world than in the biotic world. . . just the diversity of molecules in the Murchison meteorite. . ."

Stu Kauffman, who was scheduled to give a talk at Princeton on autocatalysis but was unable to travel, told me that "Organic Chemistry even in space flows into its Adjacent Possible."

Nicholas Hud, also of Georgia Institute of Technology, advised that "we're made of a surprisingly boring number of small molecules, 20 aminos acids, etc."

Loren Williams concurred saying "Abiotic chemistry makes huge numbers of molecules. It's very sloppy. But biology picked what was useful and excluded all the rest."

Laurie Barge of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory was dazzling in articulating her understanding of hydrothermal vents on the early Earth, as was Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

I missed Heinrich-Heine-Universitat's Bill Martin speaking today on "Bringing rocks to life: Hydrothermal vents and microbial origins," but he's promised me a private chat. I've been curious why Martin left Dallas, Texas for a scientific career in Germany.

"Why did I leave Texas for Germany?" He laughed, "A woman, of course."

Tuesday's presentations begin with the much anticipated "Origins of life chemistry -- reconciling the iron-sulfur and the RNA worlds" by John Sutherland, winner of the Lonsdale Origin of Life Challenge, as well as Steve Benner's address: "A semicontinuous process to form oligomeric RNA. Irene Chen of UC Santa Barbara, who formerly collaborated with Nobelist Jack Szostak, will present a talk on "RNA fitness landscapes."

The next biggest question to Origin of Life is where is the media coverage of the exploding field of Origin of Life?


Earlier Reports in this series:
Conference Preview
Conference Report #1

Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email:

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