NoRCEL Gap Map – An ‘unreview’ of Universal Biology

The “NoRCEL gap map” is a project of the Network of Researchers on the Chemical Evolution of Life (NoRCEL). Unlike a review that discusses what we know, the NoRCEL gap map aims at being a community effort for identifying and discussing what we don’t know about universal biology.

Clarity about our lack of knowledge serves our progress as we further explore and transcend current boundaries. We readily accept that physics and chemistry should follow universal principles, but is life a fluke or a direct consequence of such principles as well?

With “universal” biology, we refer to at least three different overlapping meanings: – described by a few fundamental and general principles, – applying to more than a single instance, – present throughout the Universe.

As evolving document, the NoRCEL gap map will also serve as a valuable instrument for fostering the NoRCEL community by revealing shared interests and connections across a wide range of diverse expertise, while encouraging thinking beyond disciplinary confines. In a first brainstorming phase, you are asked to identify and describe an issue on which we appear to be stuck. Feel free to provide detail if this clarifies the point that you want to make, or briefly discuss what needs to be sorted in order to be able to make progress. Both statements and questions are welcome. Please avoid being too general; your description should be suited for guiding a structured discussion on the topic. For example, “We don’t know how life formed” does not permit to localise our gap of knowledge. Don’t we understand what life is? Don’t we know what it is made of? Or are we just missing a small detail in the process? If there are various “gaps” that spring to your mind, please feel free to submit multiple forms. All contributors are envisaged to become authors of the arising document (unless they decide to opt out).


Results of ‘Phase 1

The activity to define gap maps on Universal Biology has been initiated during the 5th NoRCEL virtual conference. For aiding further discussion, 96 entries received so far in Phase 1 have been preliminarily grouped into 18 thematic clusters:

Cluster 1: Definition and terminology of “life”
Cluster 2: Fundamental principles governing the emergence of life
Cluster 3: Assembling life from its building blocks
Cluster 4: Co-evolution of life with its environment
Cluster 5: Biosignatures
Cluster 6: Water
Cluster 7: Beyond carbon and water
Cluster 8: Chirality
Cluster 9: Replication
Cluster 10: Where did life originate?
Cluster 11: Chemical routes to life
Cluster 12: Linking organic and inorganic chemistry
Cluster 13: Life and thermodynamics
Cluster 14: Cells
Cluster 15: Genetic code
Cluster 16: Complexity
Cluster 17: Before and beyond Earth
Cluster 18: Ways to move forward 

As we are now entering “Phase 2” of the project, it is not too late to contribute with your thoughts via the Airtable web form: