Home' Technology Review : May June 2009 Contents ESSAY
The driver turned o the engine of his rumbling Russian-
army troop carrier at the edge of a deep canyon carved
by a stream of glacial meltwater. Our little research
group---which included Stanford graduate students
Jamie and Meaghan, postdocs Jan and Jake from the Carnegie
Institution of Washington, and our guide, Vladimir---clam-
bered down from the truck for a welcome stretch after a jarring
five-hour drive from Petropavlovsk. Then we shouldered our
packs and began to climb, crunching over packed snow and
ice between house-size boulders. When we stopped for breath
and looked back downhill, we could see the ash and lava flows
from past eruptions eroded into hills and valleys, with scat-
tered patches of low shrubs in sheltered areas far below. The
jagged volcanic landscape of Kamchatka defined the horizon.
Above us loomed our goal: the blasted peak of Mount Mut-
nowski, a volcano that had erupted just a few years before.
Two hours later and 2,000 feet higher, we peered over the
edge of the crater. It was hard to grasp the chaos beneath us.
There was nothing alive in this landscape of black and gray
rock except our team of six. A small glacier on the other side
was melting into the crater, and distant roaring sounds ema-
nated from deep inside as steam rose into the blue sky. Earth,
air, fire, and water, I thought---the ancient elements, brought
together here in far eastern Russia, stirred by heat energy left
over from the beginning of our planet's history. Except for the
glacier, this place seemed like a remnant from that time---a
model of what Earth was like four billion years ago, before life
began. We made our way down into the crater, at times wear-
ing gas masks to protect our lungs against caustic gases.
My fieldwork in Kamchatka was supported by a NASA grant,
and our main goal was to better understand geochemical condi-
tions related to the origin of life on Earth and perhaps on Mars.
Earlier publications in Russian-language journals had reported
that organic compounds, including amino acids, were present in
the boiling springs and vapors of volcanoes in Kamchatka. Every-
one agrees that the origin of life required a source of organic com-
pounds, but no one really knows what the primary source might
have been. One possibility is that most of the compounds were
produced by geochemical synthesis in volcanic regions early in
Earth's history, and it would be a real breakthrough if we could
detect similar reactions in volcanoes today.
The second goal was basically to hedge my bet. What if we
got all the way to Kamchatka and found no organic compounds?
That would be embarrassing. For this reason I brought along
a mixture of compounds similar to those we thought might
have been available four billion years ago to kick-start life:
four amino acids, a fatty acid, phosphate, glycerol, and the four
bases of nucleic acid. We knew that under laboratory condi-
tions, these components can react to produce more-complex
compounds related to the molecular structures and functions
characteristic of life. I proposed to add these to a volcanic pool
to see what would happen. Most of my colleagues believe that
this kind of experiment is a bit silly because the conditions are
so uncontrolled, but I think of it as a reality check. We can get
interesting reactions to work in a laboratory, but what if we are
overlooking something that becomes apparent only when we
try to simulate those reactions in a natural environment?
SYMBIOSIS AND SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
When I first began to hear the term astrobiology a few years
ago, it sounded strangely discordant. And then another new
discipline appeared that was even more of a stretch: synthetic
biology. But this is how science progresses---by a kind of sym-
biosis between seemingly unrelated disciplines, in which tra-
ditional biology and chemistry become biochemistry, and
biology and physics become biophysics. I began my career
Illustration by CHRIS BUZELLI
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY IS A NEW
FIELD, BUT IT'S TARGETING AN OLD
QUESTION: HOW DID LIFE BEGIN?
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