George Whitesides, Ph.D.

Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard UniversityGeorge Whitesides, Ph.D.’s Website

Project: Studies in the Chemistry of Elementary Processes in Peribiotic Earth

The origin of life presents a particularly difficult problem for chemistry because it is essentially unconstrained: there are a very, very large number of reactions that might have occurred on peribiotic Earth, and few hard limits on the types of compounds that might have been available, on the possible reaction conditions, and on the processes that might finally have led to elementary cells of the type that we now know. What is, however, clear is the central conundrum of understanding “life”: that is, that a living cell is composed of molecules; that molecules in cells are reacting; that neither the molecules nor the reactions are individually alive; but that the cell — as a collection of reactions and processes — is alive. Understanding how that transformation might have occurred — from an intractably large number of possible components to an assembly of networks with an emergent property (“life”) — is the central problem of the field and one of the big problems in all of science.

The objectives of this research program are to develop an understanding of the plausible reactions that could occur on the peribiotic Earth. We, thus, wish to: i) constrain the problem to simplify and focus the task of other scientists who are interested in making the structurally complex molecules that are essential in current life; ii) attack some of the problems of concentration, catalysis and network formation that are essential to the formation of spontaneously evolving, dissipative systems; iii) assemble plausible lists of elementary reactants and processes leading toward those commonly found in current metabolism; iv) develop rationales for the existence of “chemical fossils”: that is, molecules, reactions and processes that seem to be common to all life (so far as we know) and thus seem to offer hints about the very earliest, common, stages the formation of proto-cells.

Bio:  George M. Whitesides received an A.B. degree from Harvard University in 1960 and a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology (with J.D. Roberts) in 1964.  He was a member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1963 to 1982.  He joined the Department of Chemistry of Harvard University in 1982, and was Department Chairman 1986-89, and Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry from 1982-2004. He is now the Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor. Dr. Whitesides’ present research interests include: physical and organic chemistry, materials science, biophysics, complexity and emergence, surface science, microfluidics, optics, self-assembly, micro- and nanotechnology, science for developing economies, catalysis, energy production and conservation, origin of life, rational drug design, cell-surface biochemistry, simplicity, infochemistry, electromagnetic and flames, and soft robots and machines.

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