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Proceedings Paper

Chirality, quantum mechanics, and biological determinism
Author(s): P. C. W. Davies
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Paper Abstract

The holy grail of astrobiology is the discovery of a second sample of life that has emerged de novo, independently of life on Earth (as opposed to extraterrestrial life that shares a common origin with terrestrial life via a panspermia process). It would then be possible to separate aspects of biology that are lawlike and expected from those that are accidental and contingent, and thus to address the question of whether the laws of nature are intrinsically bio-friendly. The popular assumption that life is an almost inevitable product of physics and chemistry, and therefore widespread in the universe, is known as biological determinism. It remains an open question whether biological determinism is correct, as there is little direct evidence in its favour from fundamental physics. Homochirality is a deep property of known life, and provides an important test case for the competing ideas of contingency versus lawfulness - or chance versus necessity. Conceivably, a chiral signature is imprinted on life by fundamental physics via parity-violating mixing of the weak and electromagnetic interactions. If so, homochirality would be universal and lawlike. On the other hand, it may be the result of chance: a random molecular accident during the pre-biotic phase. If the latter explanation is correct, one could expect that a second sample of life may have opposite chiral signature even if it resembled known life in its basic biochemistry. There is thus a curious obverse relationship between chirality and biogenesis in relation to biological determinism. If the chiral signature of life is the product of chance, we may hope to discover "mirror life" (i.e. organisms with opposite chiral signature) as evidence of a second genesis, and the latter would establish that life's emergence from non-life is quasi-deterministic. On the other hand, if the chiral signature is determined by fundamental physics, then it may be much harder to establish an independent origin for extraterrestrial life with biochemical make-up resembling that of known life. Whilst the experimental search for a second sample of life - possibly by detecting a chiral "anomaly" - continues, some theoretical investigations may be pursued to narrow down the options. Chiral determinism would be an intrinsically quantum process. There are hints that quantum mechanics plays a key role in biology, but the claim remains contentious. Here I review some of the evidence for quantum aspects of biology. I also summarize some proposals for testing biological determinism by seeking evidence for a multiple genesis events on Earth, and for identifying extant "alien microbes" - micro-organisms descended from an independent origin from familiar life.

Paper Details

Date Published: 14 September 2006
PDF: 8 pages
Proc. SPIE 6309, Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology IX, 630908 (14 September 2006); doi: 10.1117/12.690619
Show Author Affiliations
P. C. W. Davies, Macquarie Univ. (Australia)
Arizona State Univ. (United States)


Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 6309:
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology IX
Richard B. Hoover; Gilbert V. Levin; Alexei Y. Rozanov, Editor(s)

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