Genesis of the Workshop and Report

In April of 2012, researchers from Emory University, Arizona State University, the University of Utah, and the University of Washington jointly hosted a workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), focused on research into alternatives chemistries of life. Such research opportunities are driven by the emergence of numerous technologies, including metagenomic analyses and meta-data processing, as well as rapidly accelerating discoveries of exoplanets beyond our solar system. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together diverse scientific communities that have not historically collaborated but could directly guide these opportunities and engage in them.  Chemists, physicists, microbiologists, and virologists among many diverse researchers came together in this workshop to discuss alternative chemistries research from their distinct perspectives. Many fundamental topics were addressed, including alterative biopolymer backbones, novel chemical reactivity within dynamic networks, and the emergent properties of macromolecular assemblies and complex systems that constitute living matter.

We have done our very best to capture the richness of the discussion and to focus the findings around implications and next steps, and we are immensely grateful to all workshop participants for their time, energy, and ideas.  However, it was possible to capture only a small portion of the marvelous ideas that surfaced across those few days. It is readily apparent that this event needs to be repeated often given the wealth of scientific opportunities that are now emerging, as reflected in this Report. Like a pebble landing in a pond, we hope the radiating energy continues to spread throughout our community.

The Report is organized into chapters on top-down causality, bottom-up emergence, and the diverse interface now forming between and connecting the two in a region we call the golden spike. Research implications and actions distilled from the Workshop discussions are provided in each chapter. We certainly anticipate other opportunities will appear with time, and we hope the identified actions will catalyze the development of a road map for future discussions and research opportunities, as well as other workshops and symposia. In the spirit in which this report was developed, we urge you to circulate it widely among your colleagues in all relevant disciplines and at professional societies and foundation meetings, and to participate in what we hope will be multiple follow-up workshops and symposia.