The talk by Frederic Stanley Kipping Awardee T. Don Tilley was worth the time to see. This UC Berkeley chemistry prof has accumulated a substantial list of results on in the organometallic chemistry arena, much of it with the use of silanes.

The ACS Awardee in Organometallic Chemistry, G. Parkin of Columbia University, was equally interesting. Parkin described his work with kinetic isotope effects and had some caveats for those attempting to draw mechanistic conclusions from such studies. The reaction temperature used in the study can give a positive effect, no effect, or a negative effect. Hmmm.

George Whitesides (GW) gave a talk entitled “Questions about questions about the origins of life”.  It was actually a kind of homily summarizing his summaries. Ok. Let’s see if I can do better than that.  GW has been ruminating on the origins of life and has come to the conclusion that neither the physicists or the biologists are equipped to solve the problem. 

The first matter that he paraded before the audience was this- is it enough to say that the world is bifurcated into two domains- alive and not alive? Is it binary or continuous? GW thinks it is continuous.  It just occured to me that prions may be a good present day exception to the assertion that it is binary. But what really matters is the question of whether life was continuous or binary during the peribiotic period while life was forming.

GW suggested that it is important for us to find examples of chemical fossils.  These would be chemical compositions left intact from that era. The problem of the origin of life cannot be answered by simple extrapolation backward from present biology because the peribiotic conditions in which life arose have not been present for several billion years. We are far from understanding the chemical and redox makeup of the peribiotic world.

The origin of life arose from reaction networks that afforded molecular species that could self amplify or self replicate in an anoxic, reductive environment.

The question of the mechanistic origins of life is vastly different from the question of the mechanistic evolution of life.

Both are chemical phenomena and a mechanistic picture of both will ultimately be assembled by chemists of one sort or other.