Manolis Kellis: Origin of Life, Humans, Ideas, Suffering, and Happiness | Lex Fridman Podcast #123 | Summary and Q&A

September 12, 2020
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Manolis Kellis: Origin of Life, Humans, Ideas, Suffering, and Happiness | Lex Fridman Podcast #123


Life is a continual process of transformation, from the basic forms to the complexity of human existence, superseding physics and evolving to create unique experiences and capabilities.

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Key Insights

  • 🧑 Life's transformations range from basic forms to complex organisms like humans, superseding the laws of physics.
  • πŸ›Ÿ Time scales play a crucial role in understanding the evolution of life, with different life forms experiencing reality at various speeds.
  • πŸ’… Ancient civilizations like the Minoans transformed human culture, emphasizing principles of beauty and nature.
  • πŸ₯Ί The brain allows humans to surpass evolutionary instincts and make conscious choices, leading to unique experiences and behaviors.
  • πŸ—ΊοΈ Expanding human lifespan and future intergalactic travel may introduce further transformations in the future.


the following is a conversation with manolis kellis his second time on the podcast he's a professor at mit and head of the mit computational biology group he's one of the most brilliant productive and kind people i've had the fortune of talking to a lot of my colleagues at mit and former mit faculty and students wrote to me after our first conversa... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the difference between the genome and the epigenome?

The genome refers to DNA, while the epigenome includes chemical modifications on the DNA, which control gene activity and expression patterns.

Q: How did life evolve on Earth?

There are different theories, one of which suggests that life originated from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, while another proposes an origin from the surface, where chemical reactions and tides created the right conditions for life to emerge.

Q: Could there be more intelligent life forms than humans that we are unaware of?

It is possible, as intelligence can manifest in different ways and may not always be recognizable to us. Dolphins, for example, exhibit high-level cognition and communication skills, but they may have their own unique form of intelligence.

Q: How does life transform a planet and challenge the laws of physics?

Life's presence can be inferred through signatures that deviate from expected physical patterns, such as energy transformations, compartmentalization, and the ability to resist natural forces.


This conversation is with Manolis Kellis, a professor at MIT and head of the MIT Computational Biology Group. They discuss topics such as the human epigenome, the evolution of life on Earth, potential life on other planets, and more.

Questions & Answers

Q: What makes the human epigenome remarkable?

The human epigenome is an engineering feat that manages to compact two meters worth of DNA into a tiny space within the nucleus of a cell. It also controls the activity patterns of thousands of genes, allowing cells to remember their identity.

Q: How does the epigenome differ from the genome?

The genome refers to the DNA, while the epigenome encompasses chemical modifications and other factors on top of the DNA. The epigenome controls the expression of genes and plays a crucial role in cellular identity.

Q: Can you explain the relationship between the genome and the epigenome?

The genome is the DNA itself, while the epigenome includes modifications and factors on top of the DNA. Chemical modifications on the DNA can regulate gene expression by influencing whether certain genes are activated or repressed.

Q: How does evolution work at different levels?

Evolution operates at various levels, from individual nucleotides to genes, cells, tissues, and entire organisms. It even extends to environments and ecosystems. Selection occurs at each level, shaping the traits and characteristics of species.

Q: How did interactions between different species influence evolution?

Species interactions, such as mutualistic symbiosis, have a profound impact on evolution. Cooperation and altruism can increase the fitness of species, while harmful interactions can lead to the extinction of certain populations or species.

Q: Are there species that may be more intelligent than humans but remain undiscovered?

It is possible that there are intelligent life forms on Earth or in other parts of the universe that we haven't yet discovered. Dolphins, for example, exhibit high levels of intelligence and complex social behaviors.

Q: What are the main differences between Earth-based life and life on other planets?

Life on other planets may not resemble Earth-based life at all. Different environments and conditions would lead to the evolution of unique life forms with their own distinct characteristics and adaptations.

Q: If we discovered life on another planet, how would we study and understand it?

Studying life on another planet would require careful investigation and analysis. Scientists would need to take into account the differences in environments, genetic codes, and other factors that shape the behavior and characteristics of the alien life forms.

Q: How hard is it to make the leap from non-life to life?

The exact process of how life originated on Earth or other planets is still uncertain. However, given the right conditions and the presence of essential components such as metabolism, compartmentalization, and replication, the transition from non-life to life is considered to be inevitable.

Q: If life were found on Europa, what would be the signs of its presence?

Signs of life on Europa would likely include transformations of the surrounding environment that are not explainable through physical laws alone. These transformations could manifest as chemical signatures or other anomalies that indicate the presence of living organisms.


Manolis Kellis discusses the remarkable features of the human epigenome, which controls gene expression and cellular identity. He also explores theories of the origins of life on Earth and the potential for life on other planets, emphasizing the need to challenge traditional notions of what constitutes life. Understanding the differences and similarities between life forms on Earth and beyond is crucial in our quest to explore the vast possibilities of the universe.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Life is an incredible feat of engineering, with the human epigenome compacting 2 meters of DNA into a tiny nucleus, controlling gene activity and cellular identity.

  • Evolution works at various levels, from nucleotides to cells, tissues, organs, and ecosystems, shaping the development and survival of species.

  • Neanderthals and other extinct hominin species were likely wiped out due to competition with Homo sapiens, driven by tribalism and territorial conflict.

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