Scientists debate life's origins

February 23, 2011

Renowned scientists in fields ranging from astrobiology to genetics disputed the origin of life on Earth as we know it and the definition of life itself during a panel discussion titled “The">">The Great Debate: What is Life?” at Arizona State University on Feb. 12.

Many of the debaters agreed that the key to understanding our own origins and life itself was to find another example of life that evolved separate from our own. Although we may grasp how life has evolved on Earth, it is difficult to recognize how “non-life” became “life” when we have only one known example – our own – to study, according to Paul Davies, an ASU physicist and astrobiologist. Download Full Image

But where would we find life with a different origin from our own? The debaters suggested three possible places to search: On other planets, right here on Earth (“Life 2.0”), or created in a laboratory.

Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, suggested that we begin a search for life that is “not related to us at a fundamental level,” either genetically or biochemically, in outer space on “water worlds” like Europa or Enceladus. One advantage to this strategy would be that if we did find life elsewhere in the universe, this finding would imply that life is actually a common occurrence in the universe and, therefore, relatively abundant, said McKay.

Davies, who teaches in the Department of Physics at ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, suggested that the search for a new kind of life should begin on Earth because searching our own planet is both cheaper and easier than searching others.

New life on Earth, commonly known as “Life 2.0,” might be found in one of two places: Beyond the reach of areas that are hospitable to known life, or, perhaps intermingled right next to our own kind of life.

Additionally, discovering a new origin of life on our own planet rather than elsewhere, such as Mars, would solve the Panspermia Hypothesis conundrum. This problem arises from the possibility that asteroids may have spread our own type of life to Mars or other planets and, therefore, that the life we may eventually discover there would have no different origins than our own, Davies said.

Nobel laureate Sidney Altman took a different route. “It doesn’t matter to know geographically where life started,” he said. Instead, he argued that what matters is to understand the chemistry of life and ask what will be the relevance of your experiments.

“The most important (aspect) is the chemistry,” Altman stressed.

J. Craig Venter, who created the world’s first genetically synthesized bacteria, hinted at a third method to study the origins of life: Create it in the laboratory. When his lab transformed a natural bacterium into a synthetic one in 2007, “it was the first one whose parent is a computer,” said Venter.

While some scientists at the Great Debate discussed where best to find a new origin of life, Leland “Lee” H. Hartwell, Nobel laureate and chief scientist at the ASU Biodesign Institute’s Center for Sustainable Health, tackled the definition of life or “how would we know it if we saw it?”

He argued that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify new forms of life on other planets. “We can’t expect the chemistry to look like what we know,” he said. Hartwell, however, put forward two characteristics necessary for the term “alive” to be bestowed upon a possible life form: The ability to replicate itself and the ability to metabolize substrates.

Additionally, alternative life forms would be sophisticated and complex, Hartwell said, since organisms compete with one another and improve over time.

Richard Dawkins, bestselling author of popular science books such as “The Selfish Gene” and “The God Delusion,” said the ability of life forms to “pass on the coded information that built them in the first place” was the key to distinguishing life from non-life. For example, some non-life entities such as a forest fire may still replicate themselves, spread and utilize energy. Instead, he defined life as something both highly statistically improbable and that retained a specific direction, such as the evolution guided by natural selection. The passing on of genes, consequently, gave life “it’s very very peculiar property” of having an “illusion of purpose,” or evolution, said Dawkins.

“The Great Debate: What is Life?” is the second in a series of great debates hosted by the ASU">">ASU Origins Project, an ongoing initiative that addresses profound questions and topics meant to stir discussion.

Lawrence Krauss, the founding director of the ASU Origins Project and a Foundation Professor in physics and the School of Earth and Space Exploration, also participated in the discussion noting that attempts to find organisms on Earth outside the tree of life might necessarily fail.

The nucleic acids that form the basis of genetic inheritance may be composed the way they are for chemical and thermodynamic principles that would not permit any other molecule to perform that role, making any life form derived from a second genesis indistinguishable from those on the currently know tree of life.

In addition, any novel form of life could be “crowded out” from any ecological niche by already established organisms, he said, falling into extinction before it can gain a foothold on the planet.

“Darwin said it would be eaten by us,” Dawkins said in agreement.

“Yeah, but only if it’s tasty,” Davis quipped, noting that known organisms may not be able to metabolize life forms based on a radically different chemistry.

“The Great Debate” was sponsored by the ASU Origins Project in partnership with the Science Network, J. Epstein Foundation and the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Moderating the discussion was Roger Bingham of the Science Network. A videotape of the great debate is being edited by the Science Network and is planned to be available on the Web in March.

Written by Erin Lough and Erick O’Donnell with contributions by Serena Del Mundo, Ando Muneno, Allie Nicodemo, Maggie Pingolt, Noreen Qureshi and Cristina Rayas.

Carol Hughes,
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Alumni Association honors university innovators at Founders' Day event

February 24, 2011

The Arizona State University Alumni Association honored faculty members and alumni at its annual Founders’ Day Awards Dinner, Feb. 24, at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, 2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix. More than 700 people attended the event.

The award ceremony has been a signature event for the university for decades, and honors individuals who exemplify the spirit of the founders of the Territorial Normal School of Arizona, ASU’s predecessor institution, which received its charter from the Thirteenth Territorial Legislature on March 7, 1885. Download Full Image

A special highlight of the ceremony this year was ASU President Michael M. Crow’s acceptance of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award from the Boy Scouts of America. This award honors men who have achieved the rank of Eagle Scout at least 25 years prior to receiving the award for providing outstanding service to others.

In addition to the award presentation for President Crow, the following individuals were honored by the Alumni Association at the Founders’ Day event.

Philanthropist of the Year Award
Honoree: T. Denny Sanford

T. Denny Sanford is the founder, owner and CEO of United National Corp. In 2010, Mr. Sanford initiated a five-year, $18.85-million investment at Arizona State University to facilitate a partnership between the Teach For America organization and ASU to bring substantive changes to the way the university recruits, selects, and prepares future K-12 teachers.  He has also provided $4.4 million of funding for the Sanford Harmony Program, a project located within ASU’s School of Social and Family Dynamics that seeks to develop a model for understanding and enhancing relationships among girls and boys.

Alumni Achievement Award
Honoree: Brian Swette ’76 B.S.

Swette, who graduated from ASU with a degree in economics, has held senior marketing and executive positions at PepsiCo and eBay. He has participated on the board of directors for Burger King, J. Crew,,, Jamba Juice, The FRS Company, and Shutterfly, Inc., and has been named to Advertising Age’s “Marketing 100” and “Power 50” lists. He was also an executive producer for the 2009 independent film, “The Least Among You.”
In addition to his accomplishments as a corporate leader, Swette also has explored social entrepreneurship by becoming a board member of and by establishing the Swette Strategic Investment Fund at ASU.

Young Alumni Achievement Award
Honoree: Amanda Borden-Cochran ’03 B.A.E.

Amanda Borden-Cochran is known to many as the captain of the 1996 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team, which was the first such U.S. team in history to take home a gold medal. After winning the gold, she completed her degree in early childhood education at ASU. She now owns Gold Medal Gymnastics, which has locations in Tempe and Chandler, and also works as a television commentator for CBS Sports, ESPN and Fox Sports.

Faculty Achievement Awards

Faculty Achievement Research Award
Milton Sommerfeld, professor, Department of Applied Sciences and Mathematics, College of Technology and Innovation

Milton Sommerfeld is being honored for his research in the fields of phycology and microalgal biotechnology. One of his long-standing research interests is in exploiting algae as a promising source of feedstock for biofuels, which could lead to the development of commercially viable, renewable and sustainable fuels.

He is co-director of the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology at ASU’s Polytechnic campus and the newly established Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. He was named by Time Magazine to its list of 50 best innovators in 2008, received the governor of Arizona’s Innovator of the Year Award in Academia in 2009 and the Arizona Award for Research Excellence from the Arizona Bioindustry Association in 2010.

Faculty Achievement Service Award
Karen L. Adams, professor, Department of English, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Karen L. Adams is being honored for her career-long dedication to service. Her commitment to service in a university setting first occurred as a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she helped win union representation for state employees. Once she arrived at ASU, she continued to offer her time and expertise to enhance the educational experience of students and to facilitate the smooth operation of the department. Adams has received many awards for her service-related work, including honors from the Arizona Lao Association, a diversity award from the city of Tempe, and an award from the American Association for State and Local History.

Faculty Achievement Teaching Award
James Eder, professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

James Eder is being honored for his work as an instructor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. He has earned a reputation as an exceptionally talented and supportive teacher. His teaching at ASU is augmented by his scholarly research as a socio-cultural anthropologist, which has focused on the culture and development of the Palawan region of the Philippines.

Staff Achievement Award
Honoree: Robin Okun Hengl ’75 B.S.

Robin Okun Hengl is being honored for her work as director of the ASU Parents Association. Under her leadership, the Parents Association doubled the number of students receiving scholarships from the organization, while also increasing the amount given to each student; increased ten-fold in just five years the number of parents engaged with the association; and established a grants process that has funded free tutoring programs, the Summer Bridge student success initiative and an emergency crisis fund.

Tickets to the Founders’ Day event are $125 for Alumni Association members and $150 for nonmembers. Table and corporate sponsorship opportunities are available. For additional information about Founders’ Day, or to RSVP, visit" target="_blank">