The science behind the origin of life and humanity’s future in the stars

UCSC astrobiologist explores similarities between the origin of life and its implications for humanity’s future in space

Growing up in Kamloops, Bruce Damer’s passion for biology was fostered by local ecosystems and landscapes. (Juan Cabrejo/The Omega)

As part of the Science Seminar Series, University of California Santa Cruz Biota Institute associate researcher Bruce Damer was invited to speak last Thursday on his research exploring the origin the life and its direct parallels with applications for life in space. Growing up in Kamloops, Damer’s passion for biology was fostered through Kamloops’ ecosystems and landscapes in addition to his curiosity for astronomy.

“There’s so much vision in Kamloops and for me when our family moved here in 1968, we went from a suburban Victoria-lifestyle to suddenly these open skies and trees and sagebrush hills,” he said. “It was a really big moment for me because then I walked for five miles in any direction and see nature and different ecosystems, that’s where my passion for biology and life started.”

Damer began his undergraduate studies at TRU (Caribou College at the time) in 1980 and would give presentations on his conceptions of what life in space could entail. He completed his BSc in computer science at the University of Victoria and further pursued a master’s in electrical engineering and Ph.D.

In August of 2016, Damer and his fellow UCSC colleague David Deamer conducted fieldwork at the hydrothermal fields of Bumpass Hell, California, to conceptualize a model for the origin of life and publish the Terrestrial Origin of Life Hypothesis. Their research consisted of identifying the conditions necessary to synthesize monomers into polymers, the fundamental building blocks of life and determining the requirements for a protocell (an RNA replicase and fatty acid membrane) to reproduce and grow into a living organism.

Hydrothermal fields are hypothesized to be a common feature among “earth-like” planets in their ability to chemically synthesize polymers (the building blocks of life). (Milica Spasojevic/Unsplash)

Hypothetically, if this recipe for polymerization and encapsulation could be perfectly replicated, life could exist on any planet in the universe. However, on top of the ideal conditions for life to proliferate, combinatorial genetics plays a significant factor in determining success.

Given Damer’s background in computer science, his Ph.D. thesis was on using computers to simulate emergent lifelike phenomena. Damer compares the combinatorial mechanisms to a roulette wheel, how the chemical compounds are like the balls spinning around.

“You could make the polymers of life in a natural setting and you could get them inside the little protocells, you set off a natural roulette wheel that has all the little balls rolling around on it, landing on the green thing or wherever they’re supposed to land for you to win something,” he said.

Connecting his biological research to space applications, from 1999 to 2009, Damer’s company, DigitalSpace Corporation, was contracted by NASA to build an open-source 3D modelling platform for simulating space missions. Recently he has completed a 30-year effort with the help of astronomy and aeronautics colleagues to design a viable concept spacecraft known as SHEPHERD, a fabric-structured vessel capable of harvest resources from asteroids by encapsulating them. He elaborates the SHEPHERD concept further in his TEDx talk, saying it may be the key to open civilization into the solar system.