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

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.

Is the Future of Biology a Return to Chemistry? Carolyn Bertozzi, Stanford

Classes for the school year begin this week at Stanford University. New to the faculty is Carolyn Bertozzi, an American chemist who made her name across the bay at Berkeley and was wooed to Stanford by a chance to do research and teach chemistry in a new interdisciplinary institute known as ChEM-H. The institute will bring chemists, engineers, biologists and medical doctors together to understand life at a chemical level. We’ve often heard of biology and engineering institutes, or bringing bio and IT. This institute ups the ante and includes chemistry and medicine.

Carolyn is an outspoken scientist who feels that chemistry gets short shrift in a time when biology is considered the queen of the sciences. She points out that the National Insittues of Health tend to be lead and run by biologists. We usually call it biomedical research, not chemical-biomedical research. And yet, she argues, it is chemistry that will give us the answers going forward.

“This is a bit of semantics, but I’d say that what we don’t understand about biology is what happens at the level of molecules. What we don’t understand about biology is the chemistry of it. It is hard to see. You need a different set of tools and technology to see what happens at the molecular scale. And that is the chemistry,” says Carolyn in today’s interview.

Does Carolyn think there’s too much hype around genomics? Would she like to see a revival of chemistry?

As the editor-in-chief of a new open access journal, ACS Central Science, Carolyn will be publishing much more on the topic, making louder and prouder the voice of the chemist.