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Is there something fundamentally different about the chemistry of life compared to the chemistry of the inanimate world? Are there “chemical rules of life” that influence the diversity and distribution of biomolecules? Can we deduce those rules and use them to guide our efforts to model life’s origins or to detect subtle signs of life on other worlds?

Unlike molecules in nonliving systems, life’s molecular building blocks must be selected for their functions. To make such biomolecules, this selection requires energy and information - precious commodities in a competitive Darwinian world. Our hypothesis, therefore, is that the diversity and distribution of molecules in living systems are fundamentally different (though perhaps subtly so) from molecular suites produced by abiotic processes. In preliminary analyses of large suites of diverse molecules, we find that all systems approximate a power-law distribution; however, deviations from this power-law distribution differ for biotic versus abiotic samples. We will employ pyrolysis GCMS (gas chromatography—mass spectrometry), to determine and model the nature and abundances of the most common molecular fragments in a range of complex natural and synthetic organic molecular mixtures and model these distributions for 80 varied samples of organic molecules.

We will produce at least 12 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters, 20 professional conference talks/posters, and 15 public lectures based on this research. We will also train at least 10 early-career scientists in this research.

This research has the potential to provide a simple method to characterize organic molecular mixtures from other worlds, for example a kerogen sample from Mars. At a deeper level, we speculate that the evolution of biological mechanisms to manufacture functional molecules may be fundamentally different from the undirected synthesis in abiotic systems—potential “biological anomalies” that might reveal underlying rules of biochemistry.