We are pleased to announce Cyrille Jeancolas' PhD defense titled "Making life from scratch in a biochemical laboratory? Implementation of evolutionary properties in biomolecular networks, ethnographic investigation, and epistemological reflection". The specialization of the thesis is formally in biochemistry but the work brings together an interdisciplinary approach combining biochemistry, epistemology and anthropology.

This thesis was prepared at the Laboratory of Biophysics and Evolution of ESPCI Paris - PSL, under the direction of Philippe Nghe (Senior Lecturer in Biophysics), and within the team "Anthropology of Life", Laboratory of Social Anthropology of the Collège de France, under the direction of Perig Pitrou (Director of Research in Anthropology, CNRS - PSL).

It will be defended, in French, on Monday 15 November at 3:30 pm, in the amphitheatre of IPGG at 6 rue Jean Calvin 75005 Paris, and by videoconference, before the jury composed of :

Stéphane Douady, CNRS - University of Paris

Thomas Heams, AgroParisTech - Université Paris-Saclay

Sophie Houdart, CNRS - University of Paris-Nanterre (Rapporteur)

Purificación López-García, CNRS - Université Paris-Saclay (Rapporteur)

Christophe Malaterre, UQAM


If you wish to attend the defense, in person or remotely, as well as the thesis cocktail, please indicate your choice on the following form:


The defense will be broadcasted on Zoom:


Meeting ID : 876 7757 8733

Secret code : 861842


Thesis abstract: The question of abiogenesis (i.e. the origin of life) is a cross-cutting issue at the intersection of scientific, anthropological and philosophical concerns. This interdisciplinary thesis combines approaches from the natural sciences, the humanities and social sciences to present experimental biochemical results, their context of production and the conceptual landscape in which they are embedded. The field of origin-of-life research encompasses a multiplicity of approaches, including strategies to build evolving physico-chemical systems capable of acquiring new properties, which researchers associate with vital processes, such as metabolism or reproduction. However, since there is no consensus on the definition of life, the meaning of the synthesized artefacts can only be understood by linking their physico-chemical functioning to the epistemic culture of those who produce them.

Taking as a case study the biochemistry laboratory of the ESPCI Paris - PSL, we (i) present experimental results of evolutionary processes in biomolecular networks, (ii) highlight the human context of this research on the origin of life, (iii) and propose a conceptual philosophical framework of the transition from the inert to the living. This leads to the elaboration of the concept of "protolives" referring to objects made and interpreted as evolving towards a presumed living state. The study of protolives in the laboratory thus allows us to learn more about abiogenesis, but also about the conceptions of life of the researchers involved.

(i) In this thesis, we present the experimental realization of two protolives: a system of microfluidic droplets that grow and divide according to their chemical composition; and a system of catalytic RNAs that reproduce molecularly, generating new RNA species in parallel. The presented results show the possibility of bringing out Darwinian evolutionary properties in non-living synthetic systems, thus allowing the understanding of stages of abiogenesis.

(ii) From an anthropological point of view, we present the results of an ethnography (i.e. the description and analysis of a cultural group from the inside) of the production and interpretation of the protolives presented in the biochemical part of the thesis, in relation to the Darwinian conceptions of life of the researchers of the laboratory. Using participant observation and semi-structured interviews, we show how the synthetic systems studied become protolives, as they are experimented with, analyzed and discussed.

(iii) Finally, using a philosophy of science approach, we refine the different understandings of the very question of the origin of life, according to several axes of constraints linked to: historicity, spontaneity and similarity with life as we know it. This makes explicit the types of questions that protolives allow us to answer. This reflection is accompanied by the establishment of conceptual tools, in the form of thresholds, to facilitate the conceptualization of origin-of-life scenarios, into which protolives can be situated.