Origins of life researcher Leslie Orgel died a few days ago. He was trained as a chemist, and had produced a number of important insights into the likely paths toward the origins of self-replication.
His greatest cultural impact probably came from the promulgation of “Orgel’s Rules,” especially the second: “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” The first is the decidedly less prosaic “Whenever a spontaneous process is too slow or two inefficient, a protein will evolve to speed it up or make it more efficient.”
The 80 year-old researcher passed away in San Diego, where he had worked for many years, exploring the chemical pathways that could act as stepping stones between the organic molecules easily produced in a prebiotic world and the modern cell. He is credited with originating the RNA World hypothesis, the widely accepted view that RNA probably preceded DNA as the genetic material. His more recent work has focused on a class of organic molecules which may have been easier to synthesize abiotically in the early earth, and which could have functioned as a transition to an RNA genetic code.
His insights into the nature of early life informed NASA’s search for life on other planet.