How life began de novo on the early Earth? Was life destined to be based on carbon? Are we humans a singularity in the Universe? Our proposal aims to define, and test a new theory of complexity and emergence in molecular space; asking the question: “Can the molecular constructors found in biology lead to highly complex molecules that are simply not found abiotically?” We will explore this by comparing the complexity of simple molecules to those complex ones found in biology and aiming to establish a threshold to discriminate if the molecule in question could have been generated by a non-biological process, or if it has originated in a living system, either directly as a metabolite, or indirectly by a person (e.g. Earth or Alien chemist), or a living proxy (robot). The advantage in searching for complexity, rather than targeting for specific chemical features, is that complexity is a completely generalist parameter, and agnostic to any specific biology. By developing our Universal Life Detector, searching for complex molecules as bio-signatures, we can search for a “shadow biology” on the Earth and life elsewhere in the solar system. Also, we hope to explore molecular evolution, and what it means for matter to make the transition between dead and living, and also map the transition i.e. is the transition smooth or abrupt. We aim to define and test a new theory of complexity and ask if we can see, universally, if molecular evolution can be seen in how 'complex' or 'compressed' a molecule is. We will also use this to search for the fundamental processes that lead to the inorganic to biological transition in the laboratory in the development of artificial life offering a fundamental departure from the current approach to pre-biotic chemistry. In addition this new approach to complexity also has applications to systems beyond molecules, such as structures and other complex artefacts and we aim with collaborators to explore the use of this approach beyond molecules.
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