Opening lecture: Copernican inversions in Earth-Life science – John Herlund (ELSI, Japan)
To kick off the scientific program, John Hernlund, who holds a PhD in Geophysics & Space Physics talked about his own experience of interdisciplinary research into ‘Big Questions’ at the Earth Life Science Institute (ELSI) of the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan. ELSI is one of a number of new institutes created by the Japanese government in order to stimulate an international research environment in the country. There’s a budget of USD 1 billion available, typically USD 10 million per institute per year.
ELSI is tackling similar questions as the Origins Center, i.e. how our planet was formed and how its early environment allowed for the rise of initial life and its subsequent evolution to complexity. Hernlund is one of fifteen PIs at the institute.
Working at such an institute is a challenge, Hernlund explained to the audience. ‘Traditional research is centered on one discipline, which fits in one person’s mind. But for big questions you need different disciplines, so you have to bring different brains together to form a kind of collective intelligence.’
For this process, flexible scientists are needed, which often means young people. ‘The people are the key ingredient!’ Next, these people need time to adopt the big questions, they often need to change the direction of their work when entering an institute like ELSI. ‘Trust is the key, give them the right incentives. For example: don’t reward output, but collaboration.’
Doing a regular ‘health check’ is also important to keep all members focused. ‘Does everyone still know how the institute works?’ And money is an issue. When scientists have to get a lot of external grant money, this might loosen their ties to the central program. But if everything works, an institute like ELSI work as a ‘lens’ to focus the PIs on the big question.
One example from ELSI which Hernlund mentioned was the idea of ‘Deep Time Biochemistry’: ‘Just leave beakers standing for six months and see what happens!’ As it turned out, slow processes did happen which would not have been observed in normal chemical experiments.
Keynote lecture: Designing dynamic molecular systems – Ben Feringa (U Groningen, NL)
The keynote lecture which rounded off the first day was given by University of Groningen organic chemist Ben Feringa, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work on molecular motors, together with Sir James Stoddart and Jean Pierre Sauvage. He explained how his molecular motors are in part inspired by moving biological systems and also that ‘inspired’ can mean the end result is quite different – just like a Boeing 747 that flies but doesn’t resemble a bird.
Chemistry, Feringa explained, can build a lot of wonderful things, but it is not very good at building moving parts. Nevertheless, he succeeded in creating light-driven molecular rotary motors as well as switches. And of course, he combined four motors to create his now famous nanocar. The switches can be used to create self-assembling objects that respond to light. Feringa also made photo-switchable drugs which promise high-precision treatment.
But apart from this work, Feringa has throughout his career been involved in chiral chemistry and more specific, the question of the origin of homochirality in life. ‘This is one of the really big questions.’ There are plenty of ideas on how enantiomeric excess could have arisen. For example by stochastic fluctuation (i.e. mere chance), parity violations or circularly polarized light. Feringa showed the latter could create 0.06 percent enantiomeric excess. A tiny amount, but coupled to an amplification mechanism, it might be enough. Crystallization (favoring one enantiomer) or sublimation could act as such. Feringa expressed his hopes that the Origin Center might create the right community to answer important questions about the emergence of life on our planet.
Closing notes: The future of research into the origin of life – Stan Gielen (NWO, NL)
The conference was wrapped up by Stan Gielen, director of Dutch science funding organization NWO, who explained the changes in the funding landscape and the place of the National Science Agenda in it.
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