An international team of researchers has developed a groundbreaking theoretical framework known as assembly theory, uniting the principles of physics and biology to shed light on the evolution and complexity in nature. Published in the esteemed journal Nature, this new work marks a significant advance in our understanding of biological evolution and its interaction with the universe’s physical laws.

The genesis of assembly theory lies in its potential application in life detection, with profound implications for searching alien life and evolving new life forms in the laboratory. The theory revolves around the molecular assembly index, a complexity score assigned to molecules, which is experimentally measurable and correlates with life-derived molecules. This innovative approach bridges the gap between physics and biology, offering a fresh perspective on evolution and the construction of complex objects through natural selection.

Assembly Theory

The recent study introduces a mathematical formalism around a physical quantity called “assembly,” quantifying the selection required to produce complex objects. This concept allows for a deeper understanding of the processes underlying biological complexity and evolution.

Lead author Sara Walker, a theoretical physicist and professor at Arizona State University, emphasizes that assembly theory offers a new lens for viewing physics, chemistry, and biology. It aims to unify inert and living matter, narrowing the gap between reductionist physics and Darwinian evolution.

Furthermore, the theory’s applications are vast, ranging from simple molecules to complex cellular structures, elucidating both the discovery of new objects and the selection of existing ones. It promises open-ended increases in complexity, akin to those observed in life and technology.

Professor Lee Cronin, a co-lead author, highlights that assembly theory redefines our understanding of matter, considering the memory needed to build objects over time. This perspective could revolutionize multiple fields, from cosmology to computer science, standing at the crossroads of physics, chemistry, biology, and information theory.

The researchers aim to refine assembly theory further and explore its applications in characterizing life forms and testing hypotheses about life’s emergence from nonliving matter. The theory’s experimental testability opens up new possibilities for designing experiments to solve the origin of life conundrum.

In conclusion, assembly theory not only provides profound insights into biological complexity and evolutionary innovation but also opens up numerous research directions at the boundary of physical and life sciences.


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