The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy declares 42 the answer. But what is the question? Professor Robert Endres talks theories of life.
Illustration: Mike Lemanski
The origins of life on Earth: it is a question that has vexed philosophers, theologians and scientists for centuries – but Professor Robert Endres is undeterred. As leader of the biological physics group and the Physics of Life Network at Imperial, Endres thinks that physics has a lot to offer in moving us closer to understanding our earliest beginnings. “I’d like to extend the successes of physics to living matter and see if we can develop fundamental overarching theories for life,” he says.
And he is getting closer. “We anticipated that far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics underpins the emergence of life – when matter is driven to the extreme by fluxes of molecules and energy – but we didn’t know how. My student and I recently developed a theory that proves that, everything else being equal, dynamic states of matter emerge when maximum disorder is created in the surroundings. That might even be a precursor for Darwinian evolution, so it’s a good starting point.”
How non-living matter became living has traditionally been studied by chemists such as Stanley Miller, known as the father of prebiotic chemistry. Miller replicated a lightning storm in his lab in 1953 to produce “primordial soup” – an amino acid mixture he claimed was the basis of early life. But Endres considers physics, particularly far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, a more helpful tool for investigation because, unlike chemistry or biology, it also studies non-living matter, so could chart the moment life begins.
While he doesn’t yet know what the practical applications of his theory might be, there is the potential to revolutionise our inner and outer worlds. “In evolution you ask how are things evolving? How are things dynamically going from one time point to the next and what can happen? What kind of structures can emerge? It’s about calculating and predicting the evolution of complex systems. This may lead to new ways for the self-assembly of microscopic structures.”
Gaining a better understanding of the rules and control mechanisms of self-assembly would allow the development of synthetic organisms that might, for example, deliver drugs that target a specific tumour. Understanding what conditions are sufficient for life to emerge could also allow governments to accurately assess the viability of missions to Mars and other planets – before spending billions of pounds to get there.
But it’s the possibility of homing in on the truth that most inspires Endres. He says: “There’s nothing more exciting than asking these fundamental questions: ‘Where do we come from? Why and how?’ The ideas are there, we just have to put them together like a puzzle.”