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How does science explain the emergence of life on Earth over four billion years ago? The short answer is, it doesn't, at least not yet. That isn't to say that scientists aren't grappling with the question, with emphasis on the "grappling." The origin of life is a hotly debated topic, with multiple rival theories vying for scientific primacy. Some researchers assert that life began with the spontaneous, non-biological synthesis of so-called "biopolymers," while others believe that life began with the appearance of the first self-replicating RNA molecule. Proponents of the "metabolism-first" theory believe that life began much earlier, with networks of non-biological chemical reactions that self-organized into living systems.
McGill University puts all of these assertions and many others under the microscope in the "Origin of Life: What Was the Spark of Life?," the third annual Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium to be held in the Stephen Leacock Building, Room 132 on Oct. 4 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.
A panel of four of the world's leading experts on the biological and chemical origins of life will explain, assess and debate the merits of the competing origin-of-life theories. The panelists will include Dr. Steven A. Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution and the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology; Dr. Stuart A. Kauffman, director of the University of Calgary's Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics; Dr. Antonio Lazcano of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life; and Dr. Robert Shapiro, professor emeritus and senior research scientist at New York University. Moderating the event will be Dr. Christopher P. McKay, a planetary scientist with NASA's Ames Research Center, Space Science Division.
"Many of our speakers were invited specifically because they have totally new ideas about the origin of life," explained Dr. Hojatollah Vali, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) and science director of McGill's Electron Microscopy Centre. "Many of these ideas work from the premise that life may have started from complexity, which turns the established idea that life evolved from simple systems into complex systems on its head."
The Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium series is supported by the Trottier Family Foundation, and the current symposium is the third in a series of "Great Debates" in science and contemporary society. The inaugural Trottier Symposium in 2005 was titled "Climate Change and Energy" and was organized by McGill's Global Environment and Climate Change Centre (GEC3). The second Trottier Symposium, presented in 2006, was organized by the Department of Physics and tackled the so-called "anthropic principle" in "A Cosmic Coincidence: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?" Both belied the notion that the general public isn't interested in big scientific ideas, and both attracted wide popular interest and overflow crowds. Admission is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. Simultaneous French translation will be provided.
Lorne Trottier, president and co-founder of Matrox Electronic Systems Ltd., funded the symposia as the realization of his vision of "a public forum to inform, inspire debate and raise public awareness on contemporary issues confronting society." In addition to the Trottier Symposium, he has generously donated $23 million to McGill in recent years for construction of the Lorne Trottier Building in Information Technology and two Lorne Trottier Chairs and endowed fellowships in Science and Engineering.
For more information, please see www.mcgill.ca/science/trottier-symposium.