Life’s origins, and the evolution of complex life (like me!)

Life’s origins, and the evolution of complex life (like me!)
Cosmic Zoo - many paths models as explanation for evolution of complexity

Who cares about bugs? I want to find Vulcans!

I started out in astrobiology wondering what life could be like at a chemical level. This lead to a decade of research, which has both broadened our view of life on other worlds but also started to rule out some possibilities.

Despite my early enthusiasm, life in liquid nitrogen under the ice of Triton seems pretty unlikely. Life in liquid metals at 300oC is pretty much impossible, for different reasons. But life based around different chemicals from that which makes up life on Earth is becoming more plausible every year. That work continues, focusing on how Earth’s biochemistry came to be as it is.

But what the general public is really interested in is not the chemistry of life, it is the possibility that life like us is out there. If we find bacteria on Mars it would be a brilliant discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize, but it will not change most people’s perception of our place in the Universe. Meeting with Vulcans in Montana would change everything forever.

So a theme in my work is exploring how life on Earth went from single-celled organisms like bacteria to complex organisms like trees and mushrooms and whales. In this I am working with Prof, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a geologist and geomicrobiologist with a long record of visionary work in astrobiology. We have published two papers on how complexity arose on Earth [1] [2], and we have expanded these into a book aimed at the non-scientist. I am also exploring questions of how our staggeringly complex genome arose, and whether there is a simple path from bacterial-complexity genomes to our own.

And lastly – intelligence. Human intelligence, the sort that builds cathedrals and libraries and web sites, is unique on Earth today and probably has no precedent in Earth’s past (although if a Jurassic dinosaur built cathedrals and libraries, let alone web sites, would we know?). Many animals show intelligence; tool use, learning, and complex communication skills. So how did we happen? This is a line of work that I hope to get into in the future.