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June 13, 2011

CERN Centers Origin of Life Research

Nicole Hemsoth

When most of us think of CERN, we think of the large particle accelerator that backs some of the most cutting-edge physics research in the world. However, not long ago a group of biology and chemistry researchers descended on the facility to discuss how they could tune the work being done to explore the origins of life.

According to biologist Stuart Kauffman, who was one of the organizers of the CERN for biology meeting, “new science can arise in unexpected ways.” He said that the group “of seven origin of life workers, representing an initial group of 22 of the top researchers in the field were truly thrilled by our CERN meeting. If CERN wishes it, we hope to become a small part of the CERN world, for the origin of life itself is a problem in physics.

The workshop sought to explore the many theories behind the origins of life and the computational required to carry out meaningful research to validate concepts. The group considered grid computing, supercomputing, clouds and volunteer computing.

As a report from International Science Grid This Week (ISGTW) noted, the research the biologists brought to CERN’s table is centered on autocatalytic sets, which are “groups of molecules that undergo reactions where all molecules mutually catalyze each other and speed up the rate at which the reaction takes place.” These sets become self-sustaining and some researchers believe that protocells could have spawned out of such a system. The “could” part of that statement is the key—scientists might be confident that this is possible in theory, the question is how likely it is that this could occur at random.

This concept is still in the early stages of development but Wim Hordijk, a computational biology researcher from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland has been working on computer models that are looking at the ways autocatalytic sets could form. As one might imagine, this is computationally intensive work.

Hordijk told ISGTW, “So far we have used our own personal computers or relatively small computer clusters to run our simulation, however, we have already run into limitations in terms of available computing power.” He says that once at CERN, however, he was able to run his simulation on its grid where he found that indeed, in a situation where the probability of any molecule being a catalyst for a reaction was two in a million. As ISGTW reported, “a set of 65,000 different molecule types will have a high probability of forming an autocatalytic set…that’s a reasonable number for a chemist to test in a laboratory.”

Full story at International Science Grid This Week