This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation
At this point, you have probably heard several scientific theories on the origin of the universe – from the big bang theory to the steady-state universe, the inflationary model. In this article, we will hear from Dr. Bruce Damer about a new origin question now engaging science in the 21st Century: the origin of life. Dr. Damer is a Canadian-American multi-disciplinary scientist, designer and author, who in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz and worldwide, is developing and testing a new model for how life could have started on the Earth, four billion years ago.
In this article, Dr. Damer also presents his latest research on some remarkable implications of the above origin of life scenario. This research piece identifies three resulting potential emerging breakthrough technologies, which may have a major impact on the future of biotechnology, computing and space. Globally, there is growing interest in these fast-moving areas, each of which could become a true revolution in science and tech in the 2020s.
Dr. Damer introduced and refined this novel research on bio-AI, computing and space following an OECD-OsloMet workshop on Digital Technology for Science and Innovation, which was held in Oslo, Norway in November 2018.
A few years back, you may have seen my 2015 TEDxSantaCruz talk on the Origin and Purpose of Life:
Fast forward to today, science is on the verge of one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st Century employing The Hot Spring Hypothesis for the Origin of Life (Figure 1), which predicts how the living world could have emerged from the background physics of the cosmos. The surface of the early Earth four billion years ago (Figure 2) was subject to a large volume of meteoric in-fall from space which would have become concentrated in pools on land. This material released organic compounds forming membranes together with other organics including such as monomers like amino acids and nucleobases. When mixed together in a volcanic hot spring pool cycling between wet and dry states, the monomers became sandwiched between layers of drying membranes and formed polymers.
For those looking for a crash course on polymers and relevant molecules before reading further, Hank Green offers an excellent introduction to polymers, citing several examples you may be familiar with… perhaps without realizing how integrated they are in our daily lives.
When the pool was refilled these dry layers budded off membranous compartments called “protocells” that contained random sets of polymers. If the polymers stabilized their surrounding compartment they survived until the pool dried down again, forming an aggregate called a “progenote” at the pool bottom (cycle is depicted in Figure 3 below). The progenote is the deepest ancestor of the first form of life: the microbial community. Through many cycles the protocells forming and re-forming the progenote aggregate evolve to be able to divide on their own, not needed the wet-dry cycling, and we have the origin of life! The first stages of this scenario have been successfully demonstrated in our laboratory at UC Santa Cruz and by others, and recently in active volcanic hot springs around the world.
What insight can we derive from the plausible scenario for how life began? Figure 4 depicts an abstracted representation of the chemical cycle. A protocell is a means to crowd molecules close together so that reactions occur that would be highly unlikely in a dilute pool. Therefore, protocells are mechanisms to shape probability (P). When increasingly stable protocells aggregate into a progenote, a “network effect” can emerge in which interactions (I) occur through the diffusion of chemical products between protocells. Large numbers of polymers are cycled through combinatorial selection so that a few emerge possessing useful functions. Essentially, this process allows the cycling system to “discover” how to “write” polymer programs from initially random sequences. Some of these programs in turn act as a memory (M) permitting the replication of sets of polymers.
We propose that this three-way Probability-Interaction-Memory (P-I-M) process is an “Engine of Emergence,” representing a universal mechanism for the origin and evolution of biology including complex organisms, and by extension human intelligence, culture and technology.
Living processes and technologies might be understood anew through the lens of the cycling interaction of P-I-M. Let’s take the example of something very familiar to many of us: the operation of smartphones. Like protocells, they localize data and support symbolic interactions, which makes improbable combinations and encounters more likely. Our smart phones store a memory of such interactions so that the users of smartphones benefit from a nonlinear increase in functions. This enables ever more rapid smart phone (and user) evolution. For example, a smart phone’s ability to predict what word you are about to write once you begin typing allows you to more quickly complete which word you would like to write from a list of suggestions stored in the phone’s memory.
The ability to encapsulate and select systems of polymers was quite possibly how life started, but it may also carry implications to the future of human health, powerful new computing tools and spacecraft to enable a solar system civilization. Let us explore some of these implications next.
Three Implications of the “Engine of Emergence” for Biotechnology, Computing and Space
This work was presented in November 2018 at an OECD-OsloMet university (Figure 5) workshop on Digital Technology for Science and Innovation in Oslo, Norway. During presentations and discussions of this work, three implications emerged which may carry a major impact on the future of biotechnology, computing and space.
1) Bio-AI for Next Generation Gene Therapies
The origin of life scenario introduced above carries major implications for the emergence of a new form Artificial Intelligence made not of code but chemicals: “Bio-AI” which will likely have a substantial impact on medicine and human health in the 21st Century.
The ability to non-enzymatically synthesize bothand DNA and encapsulate them within a membranous “protocell” will open a frontier for medicine to introduce short segments of “silencing” RNA (siRNA) into cells, which would enable them to interrupt the action of viruses in a safe, highly targeted way.
In 2018, UC Santa Cruz Professor David Deamer (who is mentioned in my first TEDx talk above) founded the upRNA company to commercialize the wet-dry cycling methods from the Hot Spring Hypothesis to form short RNA polymers. In addition, a collaboration with San Francisco startup,, brings in experts in creating the packages for siRNA delivery called exosomes. Putting these two companies and technologies together we envision a microfluidics chip which could produce a particular siRNA strand generated through a DNA template and deposit it into a tuned exosome for delivery into virally infected cells. The siRNA strand is then transported by a series of enzymes, such as argonautes, and can cleave or block the viral RNA as it attempts to co-opt the translation machinery of the cell (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Argonaute binding siRNA strand to viral RNA, interrupting its translation
This technology has the potential to provide health benefits for all virally involved diseases, drastically changing the way we currently treat these infections including HIV, influenza and the common cold.
The upRNA/Mantra Bio system would also constitute the first packaged delivery of a nucleic acid complex “program” to target actions within a cell. Beyond fighting viral infections, there are other significant healthcare implications for this system. Entire chemical circuits involving transcription and translation could be delivered to the cell as new exosome “organelles,” which function as a symbiotic prosthetic within the cell’s metabolic pathways. This instantiation of Bio-AI would effectively create new “Bio-Apps” at the cellular level replacing or enhancing the cell’s natural processes.
This glimmer of the first Bio-AI technology warrants some careful research and consideration and perhaps the OECD might be an appropriate intergovernmental organization to take this into its research portfolio. This new category is a merger of computing (AI and agents), synthetic biology and medicine (Figure 7) and a research program dedicated to it could be divided into the following three subtopics:
- Biomedical applications in siRNA interfering disease pathways similar to CRISPR.
- Biosecurity and bioweapons implications in dealing with pandemics, natural or manmade.
- Bioengineering supporting the replacement or enhancement of cellular machinery for improved performance or life extension.
2) Computing beyond Turing and von Neumann for the future of AI
The aforementioned work on the origin of life has yielded a further benefit: a potentially paradigm-changing architecture for computing able to support the emergence of truly open-ended learning systems such as AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). The current computing paradigm based onderived from earlier work by Alan Turing has become the standard architecture of computing. This architecture consists of a serial pipeline of instructions passing through one or more CPUs (Central Processing Units) which retrieve data, perform computations and store results in primary and secondary storage. This architecture has not changed in almost seventy years. Despite its archaic underlying architecture, Moore’s Law (the doubling of CPU speeds every few years) has enabled computing to perform increasingly central roles in society from running payroll to driving cars to powering smartphones.
With science on the verge of a plausible model for life’s origins and evolution, we can now study a laboratory analogue of system exhibiting open-ended emergence and adaptation to derive an alternative computing platform. Natural systems in chemistry and biology are inherently stochastic, parallel, self-repairing and replicable. These systems simultaneously shape probability (P), build interactive networks (I), and write and read new instructional memories (M). Basing a new computing architecture on this P-I-M “Engine of Emergence” may enable humanity to tackle the hard problems in AI such as vision/image recognition, fuzzy logic and cognition, 3D reasoning and association, and complex multi-object/variate systems such as those found in economics. Interest has been generated in this approach by members of the TransTech community including Dr. Ben Goertzel of Hansen Robotics and senior architects at SAP and Intel. We are beginning a collaboration with Google to explore how this P-I-M architecture could form a radically new post-von Neumann architecture which might be far superior in supporting the development of an AI system that can harness the power of evolution for open-ended adaptation. Research on the origin of life may therefore have a direct bearing on the future of computing, especially AI and machine learning systems. Some of the technologies that could be drawn from include FPGAs, Reservoir computing (Figure 8), Artificial Life and complex adaptive systems.
3) SHEPHERD Asteroid Encapsulation and Harvesting: Stepping Stones to a Solar System Civilization
Before his death, Stephen Hawkings said
“The long-term future of the human race must be in space.”
Inspired by the power of encapsulation utilized by protocells and all living cells, a future for life outside the Earth could be enabled by the encapsulation of the same asteroidal materials that led to the emergence of life itself. The encapsulation of asteroids within a fabric membrane similar to those used in helium balloons and existing inflatable space habitats allows an atmosphere to be introduced. With an atmosphere comes the ability to use gas flow to gently handle these large and often loosely consolidated objects, imparting a gentle force to drive them and move them throughout the solar system (Figure 9), creating a veritable “saling ship for space”. The same gas can thermally and chemically interact with the asteroid itself to permit extraction of resources for the creation of a sustainable human presence in the solar system.
On the way to this grander vision, early versions of SHEPHERD being developed by FlowSpace in the USA will enable the first full satellite servicing capability, with robotics or human crew (Figure 10), as well as the safe collection of space debris and relocation of discontinued satellites to graveyard orbits. This capability would be developed through the same gas management system envisioned for asteroids.
Gases of different chemical compositions at different temperatures can be used to harvest volatiles (water ice, CO2) and other compounds, condensing and concentrating them in tanks to be processed for fuels, human consummables and bulk liquids for radiation shielding (Figure 11). The resulting refuelling stations could be positioned at key points throughout the solar system enabling economical, sustainable and safe space travel. Similar to the 19th Century development of railways, these waypoints will provide the basis for 21st Century “highways in space.”
Figure 12 depicts how a Mars craft from NASA or SpaceX would meet a SHEPHERD-Fuel variant upon arrival in Mars orbit. SHEPHERD had retrieved and extracted from an asteroid from between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter in the “snow line” where frozen volatiles are present. The human crew would swap a fully loaded SHEPHERD fuel tank for their empty one obtaining fuel for the return journey to Earth and multiple sortie operations to many locations of Mars’ surface. The empty canister would be attached to the SHEPHERD extraction enclosure to be re-filled.
Figure 13 (left) depicts two more innovative variants of SHEPHERD, a “Miner” which utilizes carbonyl (CO) gas drawn by an electric field past a metallic asteroid. The charged CO gas extracts and binds with metal ions which are then templated onto the receiving “mandrel” enabling a form of 3D printing in space called “electroforming”. In this way, large parts including trusses, tanks, and beams can be produced in space for spacecraft, space station and eventually habitat construction. The final SHEPHERD-Bio variant (right) encloses an asteroid body which was a mixture of ice, organics and rock, then melts it into a liquid phase. The liquid would form a sphere with surface tension holding its shape and fluid resistance keeping the rocky material in the interior. Microbiota, algae, plants and small animals such as crustacea or fish would then be introduced. The atmosphere would be a lower pressure version of an Earth composition and this spherical “ocean” would then be lit by interior LEDs powered by external solar cells on the enclosure fabric. This variant could provide large-scale production of foodstuffs and valuable chemical extracts to sustain life in space.
Figure 14 illustrates how the system can come together to build a much larger space station than the current ISS: with parts made in space and crew fed in space instead of supplies being lifted from Earth at enormous cost. The construction of larger habitats and colonies would then be in reach.
Figure 15 depicts how all of the SHEPHERD variants, especially the refuelling stations, can enable several classes of mission from space stations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to robotic spacecraft exploring the outer solar system to human missions to Mars. The resulting “highways in space” will truly open up “the final frontier.”
To wrap up, you can see how this would all work in my 2015 TEDxSantaCruz talk:
Some articles for further reading are referenced below:
- Damer, B., and D. Deamer (2015), “Coupled phases and combinatorial selection in fluctuating hydrothermal pools: A scenario to guide experimental approaches to the origin of cellular life”, Life (Basel), 5: 872-887, DOI: 10.3390/life5010872.
- Damer, B. (2016), “A Field Trip to the Archaean in Search of Darwin's Warm Little Pond”, Life (Basel), DOI: 10.3390/life6020021.
- Jenniskens, P., B. Damer, R. Norkus, S. Pilorz, J. Nott, B. Grigsby, C. Adams and B. Blair (2015), “SHEPHERD: A Concept for Gentle Asteroid Retrieval with a Gas-Filled Enclosure”, New Space, Vol. 3, No. 1:36-43, www.digitalspace.com/papers/SHEPHERD/Jenniskens-Damer-et-al-SHEPHERDspace20140024.pdf
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