Lee Cronin on Origin of Life, Genomics, Aliens and More

Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry, University of Glasgow

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0:00 Origin of life: Assembly theory provides the mechanism for selection before genes come along.

15:56 Criticism of assembly theory?

19:59 Applying the theory to genomics

24:50 Have we overlooked the answers chemistry might have for biology?

33:17 Cancer and death

40:49 Why would aliens have different mathematics?

50:34 Chemputation, chemical computers, and Chemify

While we’re able to sit outside on a warm summer’s night under the ocean of stars, let us contemplate some of the bigger questions.

We’re very excited to start out our twelfth season of the podcast with the chemist, Lee Cronin, from the University of Glasgow. Lee published an original and fundamental theory about the universe in the weeks after we taped which has profound implications for the question about the origin of life and could have some interesting applications in genomics.

Here’s Lee on what he calls assembly theory:

“Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a very natural phenomenon in biology. But it hasn’t been given any precision in mathematics or physics even though there is plenty of computational evolution. Genomics has allowed us to do this. But before genomics, how does evolution work? Assembly theory gives you the mechanism by which you can get selection before biology, selection before genes. And by extension, genes are just a product of assembly theory. And because we have a mathematical basis for assembly theory it should propagate well into genomics.”

How often does a scientist come along with a theory on par with natural selection? We often ask biologists on this program if they are reductionists—if they believe biology can be reduced to chemistry. When we asked Lee, he answered that he is an “assembly theorist.” So is that a category now? And can one be an “ist” of their own theory? Why not—what’s the fun of coming up with a theory if you can’t? If discussing abiogenesis isn’t cool enough, Lee talks about applications this theory might have in the study of genomics and biology today.

We then roam into questions of death—what are Lee’s thoughts on radical life extension?—and cancer cells. And from there to aliens. Lee’s unusual thinking on that topic is that life elsewhere will be much stranger than most of us have been thinking. He doubts that any alien life would stem from RNA.

One of Lee’s current projects is chemical computers which he designed because he was fed up losing grad students who were trained to make chemicals. The computers create chemicals now for a company called Chemify.