Alternative Chemistries of Life

A Call to Action

In April of 2012, researchers from Emory University, Arizona State University, the University of Utah, and the University of Washington jointly hosted a workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), focused on research into alternatives chemistries of life. Such research opportunities are driven by the emergence of numerous technologies, including metagenomic analyses and meta-data processing, as well as rapidly accelerating discoveries of exoplanets beyond our solar system. Accordingly, the purpose of the workshop was to bring together diverse scientific communities that have not historically collaborated but could directly guide these opportunities and engage in them. Both NASA’s astrobiology and NSF’s chemistry programs support researchers working in the broad areas of alternate biopolymers, alternative metabolism and new metabolic functions, and the identification and characterization of organisms in extreme environments. These programs fund scientists whose theoretical and experimental expertise provide the tools needed to advance our understanding of newly revealed alternative chemistries.


Scientists working in different disciplines, including chemists, physicists,microbiologists, and virologists, came together in this workshop to discussalternative chemistries research from their distinct perspectives. A number offundamental topics were addressed, including alterative biopolymer backbones, novel chemical reactivity within dynamic networks, and the emergent properties of macromolecular assemblies and complex systems that constitute living matter. Small breakout groups considered a series of questions, with each group reporting back to the collective workshop participants. Given the relative novelty of bringing these diverse disciplines together, distillation of the important concepts involved finding a common nomenclature, elaboration of the recent advances and primary questions of different disciplines, and identifying the opportunities that truly connected the individual interests. We have done our very best to capture the richness of the discussion and to focus the findings around implications and next steps. However, it was possible to capture only a small portion of the marvelous ideas that surfaced across those few days. Therefore, our major conclusion is that this event needs to be repeated often given the wealth of scientific opportunities that are now emerging.

Ripple Effects

We are immensely grateful to all workshop participants for their time, energy, and ideas. This report reflects many of the discussions that surfaced during the workshop. Like a pebble landing in a pond, we hope the radiating energy continues to spread throughout our community. Various topics are organized in chapters on top-down causality, bottom-up emergence, and the diverse interface now forming between and connecting the two in a region we call the golden spike. In each chapter we develop a set of research implications and next steps that we distilled from the discussions. We certainly anticipate other opportunities will appear with time, and we hope the identified actions will catalyze the development of a road map for future discussions and research opportunities, as well as other workshops and symposia. In the spirit in which this report was developed, we urge you to circulate it widely among your colleagues in all relevant disciplines and at professional societies and foundation meetings, and to participate in what we hope will be multiple follow-up workshops and symposia.

Download the Report

Click the button below to download a copy of the Workshop Report as a PDF (5MB).

When using this Report, please cite as:  Goodwin JT, Lynn DG, Burrows C, Walker S, Amin S, and Armbrust V, Alternative Chemistries of Life – Empirical Approaches, 2014, ISBN:  978-0-692-24992-5.