Philosophical Society of Washington


Geochemical origins of life's molecular handedness

Bob Hazen
Carnegie Institution of Washington & George Mason University

2188th Meeting Abstract
Friday, February 25, 2005 at 8:15 PM


Life arose on Earth as a geochemical process from the interaction of rocks, water, and gases. Prior to the origin of life, the necessary organic molecules had formed abundantly, but indiscriminately, both in space and on Earth. A major mystery of life's origin is how an idiosyncratic subset of those diverse molecules was selected and concentrated from the prebiotic soup to form more complex structures leading to the development of life. Rocks and minerals are likely to have played several critical roles in this selection, especially as templates for the adsorption and organization of these molecules. The author's recent experimental and theoretical studies on interactions between crystals and organic molecules reveal that crystals with chiral surface structures may have facilitated the separation of left- and right-handed biomolecules - the possible origin of life's distinctive homochirality.

Robert M. Hazen

About the Author:

Robert M. Hazen, research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Geophysical Laboratory and Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University, received the B.S. and S.M. in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1971), and the Ph.D. at Harvard University in earth science (1975). Hazen is author of more than 250 articles and 18 books on science, history, and music. He has received a number of awards for writing and research, including the American Chemical Society's Ipatieff Prize and the Mineralogical Society of America Award. He is currently President of the Mineralogical Society of America. Hazen's recent research focuses on the role of minerals in the origin of life. Robert Hazen is also a professional trumpeter who has performed with numerous ensembles including the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Ballet, the Boston Symphony, and the National Symphony Orchestra.

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