CERN, life science and the origins of life

This week, a specialised group of biologists, medical doctors and life scientists are taking part in the COOL EDGE Workshop 2013. The participants are here to gain inspiration from CERN as a successful model for international scientific collaboration. Their goal is to clarify several of the objectives in the origins-of-life research field.

This small workshop follows an initial, informal meeting held at CERN on 20 May 2011. On that occasion, a group of life scientists, interested in the origins of life, visited CERN and the ATLAS experiment to learn more about how powerful computing is used, as well as how large international science projects are created and governed. This week, some of the world’s experts in life science are brainstorming at CERN once again – this time in a four-day invitation-only meeting.

How did life appear on Earth? When will we be able to build a proto-cell? These are some of the hot topics on the minds of the attendees. However, their concern in this context is not the emergence of proto-life, but the organizational difficulties that seem to affect the field’s progress. “Although CERN could be perceived as an unusual venue to discuss such questions, the reason for hosting the COOL EDGE Workshop is to be found in CERN’s ability to organise and manage large-scale research projects and openness in sharing its experiences,” says convener of the meeting Markus Nordberg of the ATLAS collaboration.

The COOL EDGE Workshop was the brainchild of American theoretical biologist and expert in the complexity of biological systems and organisms, Stuart Kauffman. “If we do not organize our field we are in danger of drifting into scattered, uncoordinated groups that make little progress,” said Kauffman in an interview with the CERN Bulletin after the first meeting in 2011. “By coordinating our efforts, we believe we can make more rapid strides.”

“We are happy to share our experience with large-scale collaborations with the life scientists participating in the COOL EDGE Workshop 2013,” says Sergio Bertolucci, director for research and computing who opened the meeting on Tuesday. “The CERN model is an example (and a successful one!) of how large international collaborations can actually work. We are happy if we can also be of help to other communities.”