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Tokyo Origin of Life Talks: Core of Earth--Beyond

Tokyo Origin of Life Talks: Core of Earth--Beyond

By Suzan Mazur
March 14, 2013


In January there was Princeton's publicly streamed powwow on Origin of Life oriented to chemistry. Then February's private meeting on the subject at CERN on the Swiss-French border, focused on physics and philosophy. Tokyo's upcoming symposium, March 27-29, journeys to the center of the Earth and beyond probing for answers to the origin and evolution of life.

Geophysicist Kei Hirose, Director, Earth-Life Sciences Institute is hosting the upcoming "1st ELSI International Symposium" at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Japan's MIT).

Hirose is best known for identifying "post perovskite" in 2004, a mineral in the lowermost mantle of the Earth. Post-perovskite is a hexagonal crystal that can conduct electricity, and like mica, can be peeled.

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Hirose fell in love with geology partly because it took him to exotic destinations. He admits he was a late bloomer academically, but he eventually caught up in a big way, in 2011, receiving the European Association of Geochemistry's Science Innovation Award as well as the Japan Academy Prize. A few months ago he was named Director of ELSI.

It was long thought the Earth's core was 3.5 billion years old, but Hirose's research has led to a redating to roughly the time of the Cambrian Explosion 500 million years ago. This, he says, is one argument why it is important to continue to investigate the inner Earth in relation to the origin and evolution of life.

Kei Hirose's PhD is from the University of Tokyo. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington.

My recent interview with Kei Hirose follows as well as the program for the upcoming Tokyo symposium.

Suzan Mazur: What is Japan's annual budget for Origin of Life research?

Kei Hirose: It's a difficult question. Origin of Life is a big topic.

Suzan Mazur: I understand it's something like $80 million over 10 years, but Origin of Life is actually only part of that money. Is your Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology funded by the government or is it a private institute?

Kei Hirose: Our institute is funded by the Japanese government.

Suzan Mazur: What is the budget of your institute annually?

Kei Hirose: Almost $7 million per year.

Suzan Mazur: What part of the overall program at your institute is Origin of Life?

Kei Hirose: $60 million in total for 10 years for all the activities of the institute.

Suzan Mazur: How big a part of the institute is Origin of Life research?

Kei Hirose: Let's say half. Let me explain in more detail. The aim of our institute is to explore origin of life from the geological context. In order to understand the geological context, the geological environment at the beginning of the Earth, we have to understand the origin of Earth itself. Half of our principal investigators are geophysicists, geologists and astronomers. The institute itself has the grand aim of exploring origin of life, but half of our researchers are directly focused on origin of the Earth and its environment.

Suzan Mazur: But it's all related to Origin of Life.

Kei Hirose: Related but not all directly related.

Suzan Mazur: Are there other institutes in Japan working on Origin of Life aside from yours?

Kei Hirose: No, except for a small community organization. I don't know how many members it has.

Suzan Mazur: Do you favor the metabolism-first approach or RNA World approach to Origin of Life?

Kei Hirose: Of course metabolism is very important, but it is not easy to understand metabolism for first life.

Suzan Mazur: I noticed you have invited to the 1st International Symposium at ELSI, March 27-29, key RNA World presenters like Irene Chen, Steve Benner and others who spoke recently at Princeton's Origins of Life conference. Do you favor the RNA World approach or metabolism-first approach?

Kei Hirose: At this moment I do not have any preference. As everybody knows, we need some breakthroughs to understand the orgin of life. Here at ELSI we are considering each process from the point of view of the early Earth environment.

Suzan Mazur: Do you think the metabolism-first and RNA World approaches are coming together?

Kei Hirose: I don't have any preference at this moment.

Suzan Mazur: Why are you exploring deep sea microbial ecosystems?

Kei Hirose: The deep-sea hydrothermal system is one of the widely accepted possibilities for origin of life. This is one of our points of focus. We have one principal investigator in charge of exploration of the deep-sea hydrothermal system. He is using submersibles. So we have access to those studies.

Suzan Mazur: Did you work with Bob Hazen at Carnegie Institution of Washington when you were there?

Kei Hirose: I spent a year and a half as a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institution. Bob Hazen was there at the time and I knew him, but no, we were not collaborators.

Suzan Mazur: I noticed that he was an invited speaker to your March 27 symposium, is he coming?

Kei Hirose: Yes, but sorry, I don't remember what he will be speaking about.

Suzan Mazur: You've also invited Tetsuya Yomo, who is known for his work on the minimal cell. Is he coming?

Kei Hirose: Tetsuya Yomo from Osaka University, yes, he is coming.

Suzan Mazur: Who are you working with at Harvard?

Kei Hirose: Jack Szostak.

Suzan Mazur: Is your view of origin of life algorithmic or nonalgorithmic?

Kei Hirose: I'm a geophysicist and so I'm not aware of each discussion on Origin of Life at this moment.

We have a team of specialists who are making a database of genomes in relation to the environment. Through computer simulations they relate the specific Earth environment to the specific genome set. If we provide the early Earth environment, then the computer simulations will tell us what kind of genomes there should be for first life.

Biologists will examine computer simulated genome sets in specific experiments to verify the robustness of genome sets in the early Earth's environment. That's one of our processes.

Suzan Mazur: Are there philosophers presenting at your symposium?

Kei Hirose: No.

Suzan Mazur: Part of your institute's mission is to "critically examine the universality of these processes to determine the uniqueness of our planet with implications for the search for extraterrestrial life both in the solar system and beyond." Do you think we are alone in the Universe?

Kei Hirose: That's a very fundamental question. No I don't think so. We should have other life in the Universe.

Suzan Mazur: Is there any evidence that you're aware of? Has the Japanese government shared any evidence, any cases, with the scientific community?

Kei Hirose: So far we have no evidence. But people are trying to find a way how to detect life in the Universe. People are really thinking about what the critical conditions are to have life on the planet. We don't really understand at this moment what are the critical conditions for life.

For example, conventionally liquid water is critical for life. That means if you have oceans, then you have life. But it looks too simple. If you have very deep water, then we never have life. In this case you do not have nutrients for the first life. The nutrients, of course, include phosphorus. It's not easy to find phosphorus in nature. Now we have enzymes which collect phosphorus from the water from the ocean, but before we have enzymes, it's almost impossible to collect phosphorus from nature.

How to collect phosphorus from nature? Land is one of the strong possibilities. First life did not start in the deep ocean. Because if you have land, then there is weathering and that collects phosphorus from rock. Of course, we have water, but again, it should not be very deep ocean. So maybe the critical position is the presence of both land and ocean.

The oceans of the Earth now are just 0.02% of its weight, so oceans are a very tiny amount for the whole mass of the Earth. If you consider the materials originally on the Earth, they may include lots of water, 2% or possibly 5%. But we now only have 0.02% weight of water.

It's not easy to find lots of planets in the Universe that have both oceans and land. So maybe we have very few planets with life. But I hope Earth is not the only one.



Wednesday, March 27 - Kuramae Hall

Opening addresses

Y. Mishima, President of Tokyo Institute of Technology
M. Aizawa, JST
Mext / JSPS speakers
K. Hirose, Director, Earth-Life Science Institute - "Perspectives of ELSI projects"
P. Hut, Institute for Advanced Study/ELSI - "The Big Questions"

Session 1: Theory of planetary formation (Chair: C. Ormel)

S. Ida, ELSI - Keynote address: "Origin and early evolution of the Earth"
H. Genda, U. Tokyo/ELSI - "Origin of Earth's ocean"
Y. Alibert, Bern U. - Invited Talk
T. Guillot, Obs. Cote d'Azur - "On the chemical composition of protoplanetary disks, stars and planets"

Session 2: Role of solid Earth and surface environment of primordial Earth (Chair: H. Genda)

J. Hemlund, UCB/ELSI - Keynote address: "Birth of the Geodynamo"
P. Driscoll, Yale U. - "Divergence of Earth and Venus: Coupling climate, tectonics, and thermal history"
E. King, UCB - Invited Talk
T. Irifune, Ehime U. / ELSI - Invited Talk
J. Kirschvink, Caltech/ElSI - "A Magnetotactic Origin of the Mitochondria During the Lomagundi/ Jatuli Carbon Isotopic Event"

Thursday, March 28

Session 3: Origin of Life (Chair: D. Kiga)

S. Maruyama, ELSI - Keynote address
M. Hara, Tokyo Tech/ELSI - "Experimental Challenges to Connect the Dots Looking Backwards"
S. Benner, Fame - "RNA, Minerals and the Origin of Life"
K. Kobayashi, Yokohama National U. - "Laboratory simulation of formation and alteration of high molecular weight organics in space"
I. Chen, UCSB - "RNA fitness landscapes"
A. Lazcano, U. National Autonoma - Invited Talk
K. Soai, Tokyo U of Science - "Asymmetric Autocatalysis and the Origin of Homochirality of Biomolecules"
K. Takai, JAMSTEC/ELSI - "Where did the most ancient, ancestral ecosystem originate?"
J. Cleaves, ELSI - Invited Talk
W. Hordijk, - "A Formal Framework for Autocatalytic Sets"

Session 4: Synthetic experiment of life and evolution of genome (Chair: K. Kurokawa)

D. Kiga, ELSI - Keynote address
T. Yomo, Osaka U. - Invited Talk
G. Cody, Carnegie Institution of Washington - Invited Talk
L. Landweber, Princeton - "Principles of ancient genome evolution from Oxytrica"
A. Goldman, Princeton - "Ancient metabolic pathways within the modern protein repertoire"
G. Fournier, MIT - "Evolutionary Genomics and the Origin of Life: Insights and Constraint"
Y. Maeda, Kyoto U. - "Self-organization and phoretic motions for the origin of life"

Friday, March 29

Session 5: Evolution of Earth life (Chair: S. Maruyama)

Y. Ueno and N. Yoshida, ELSI - Keynote: "Origin and early evolution of life, constraints from the Earth's records"
S. Masuda and H. Ohta, Tokyo Tech/ELSI - "Origin of cyanobacteria, and its role for evolution of life"
N. Ohkouchi, JAMSTEC/ ELSI - Invited Talk
K. Kurokawa and Y. Hongo, ELSI, Tokyo Tech - Invited Talk
K. Yasuoka, Keio U. - "Molecular Simulation of formation for dimer of RNA substance and membrane"

Session 6: Exploration of planets and satellite of Solar system (Chair: S. Ida)

Y. Sekine, U. Tokyo - Keynote address: "Geochemistry and astrobiology on icy satellites in the solar system"
M. Fujimoto, JAXA/ ELSI - Invited Talk
H. Kuninaka, JAXA/ ELSI - "Asteroid Sample Returns y Hayabusa and Hayabusa2"
H. Yabuta, Osaka U. - "Organic Compounds in Meteorites, Comets, and Cosmic Dusts: Building Blocks of Planets and Life"
J. Kohm, ELSI - Invited Talk

Session 7: Exoplanets and towards astrobiology (Chair: K. Takai)

L. Kaltenegger, Max Planck/ Harvard - Keynote address: "Observation of biomarker"
D. Lin, UCSC - Invited Talk
R. Hazen, Carnegie Institution of Washington - Invited Talk
T. Sasaki, Tokyo Tech - "A Wide Variety of Habitable Planets"
Y. Fuji, U. Tokyo/ ELSI - "Characterizing surface environment of Earth-like exoplanets via disk-integrated scattered light"
J. Makino, ELSI - "Galactic environment"

General Discussion: Chair -- Piet Hut, Institute for Advanced Study/ ELSI


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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