With the recent release of Prometheus, the media has asked again, what is the origin of life? The movie questions if life on earth was created by aliens. With the use of Hollywood stunts and some black organic matter, the answer to this question is still the same as it has been: further investigation is necessary.
Harry Lonsdale, a retired chemist, seeks to answer this question scientifically rather than fictionally. In mid- 2011 he proposed a challenge to the scientific community to come up with ideas to explain the mechanisms of life’s origin. Over the next 6 months, researchers from all over sent their proposals for the Origin of Life Challenge electronically through (http://originlife.org).
Over 70 submissions were sent in, all competing for the offered reward of $50,000 and a potential $2,000,000 in research funding. Lonsdale was looking for the best original proposal of how life, which he defined as “a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution,” first arose and the chemistry involved, including how primitive life evolved into modern cells. Researchers must also keep in mind the conditions, materials and energy sources that are believed to have existed on prebiotic earth.
Lonsdale threw in a couple of questions to help researchers formulate their ideas. He asked to know the nature of the first macromolecules and how their building blocks became available and assembled. He also asked how the prebiotic molecules first gained the capacity to store genetic information and how the process evolved. He then asked specifically what the cells contained and their metabolic pathways, along with how these pathways evolved and when proteins became involved in metabolism.
This June, the winners of the Origin of Life Challenge were announced by Lonsdale and now collaborator, Lawrence Krauss, the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. Multiple winners were announced but the award winners of the $50,000 were two British chemists, John Sutherland from the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Molecular Biology, Cambridge and Matthew Powner from University College, London. They are researching the chemistry of replication mechanisms used in the beginning of life by demonstrating the selective generation of RNA and other key molecules. They plan to use simple feedstock molecules under the environmental conditions of prebiotic earth. They also received a $150,000 one-year grant for their research and if successful, the Sutherland-Powner team will have shown how RNA could have emerged from chemical reactions that occurred on young earth.
Miles Lehman of Portland State University, Peter Unrau of Simon Fraser University, and Paul Higgs of McMaster University, both from Canada, received a $90,000 one-year grant for their proposal to explore the ways information is stored in random pieces of RNA and if these pieces can assemble into sets of self-replicating molecules. They plan to mix large pools filled with small fragments of non-functioning RNA, under prebiotic conditions, and look for RNAs that have the ability to make copies as well as catalyze biochemical reactions. If they are successful, the research will show the transition from “dead” chemicals to a living state.
The final winners, who received a grant of $60,000, were a team from Wenonah Vercoutere of NASA Ames Research Center in California and David Deamer from the University of California in Santa Cruz. They proposed to demonstrate how nucleotides can polymerize to form RNA when they are organized in membranous structures and exposed to conditions similar to volcanic hot springs. If they are successful, it will show how proto-cells with RNA could have formed in the prebiotic environment.
Lonsdale truly hopes that in a decade or two there will be an answer to this long-standing question and that the answer can be taught in every biology class. Krauss hopes that the Origin of Life Challenge grants will motivate other researchers in the investigation of the origin of life. Both these men understand the complexity of this question and need the support of other scientists. Even the movie Prometheus cannot find the origin of life in its fictional world without the use of a sequel.
After learning about the Origin of Life Challenge, I was given the opportunity to interview Harry Lonsdale.
Marlene Rosen: When did your fascination for finding the origin of life begin?
Harry Lonsdale: It began 15 years ago, after reading Dave Deamer’s book “Origins of Life.” Also the New York Times published an article in May 2009 about scientists in the UK who synthesized the first nucleotides. This had never been done before and these nucleotides are the building blocks of life.
MR: What made you decide to create the Origin of Life Challenge?
HL: The origin of life is a complex problem that originated 3 billion years ago. No one was there to record it, so it is mostly unknown. Most of the funds for this type of research are independent. 95% comes from NASA, with a small percentage of funds comes from the National Science Foundation.
MR: Why did you want to invest your funds into the search for the origin of life and not something else?
HL: There are many theories of how life began on earth, such as that life came from meteorites that hit the earth’s surface. This is possible but it’s a long shot. I could use the money for a condo in Hawaii but I’ve made my money in science and want to put it back into science.
There are three mysteries of science: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and how the brain works. My interest is the origin of life because of my background as a chemist. There is little money being funded to this research so my contribution will be able to go a long way.
In the last 20 years, there is only a vague outline of how life originated. Life probably began without proteins, which are essential to people today. Proteins are very complex, so the question is how was life functioning without them? It is thought that RNA was the substitute for proteins when life first started. The RNA would carry out the life processes.
MR: How did you conduct the Origin of Life Challenge?
HL: It started with this brochure I made. I attended a conference for the ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life) and distributed them. I received 76 proposals from 19 different countries including India, China, Japan and many in Europe. There were 11 from Russia and many from the United States. I put together a panel of 8 scientists, all experts in their field, and they asked me to narrow down the proposals to about 15. We all met in San Diego for a day to review the 15 proposals. I sat in and asked questions as they evaluated the proposals and based on the evaluations, I narrowed it down to the top 3.
MR: I know that in the beginning everything behind the scenes was sworn to secrecy. Have you seen the recent interview revealing your 8 panelists, referred to as the “Lonsdale 8?” How do you feel about the secret being out?
HL: (Laughs) Yes, I have. They wanted to reveal themselves and be recognized. They are all already recognized scientists and I don’t mind.
MR: What made the three winning teams stand out from all the other researchers?
HL: They stood out because of their personal credentials and their expertise in the field. I was looking for fresh ideas. We received about 50 proposals based on science. The others were based on religion and some even surrounded the idea of multiple lives. I picked the top 3 based on how competent the researchers were and how innovative their ideas were. The 3 winning teams were from the UK, the US and a Canada-US team.
MR: Are the winners going to send you a status report on their research?
HL: They received 1 year grants which will end next May or June. There will be a meeting in May 2013, in Arizona to review the first year’s progress. They will present their work to a peer review group and I’ve asked them to suggest peers. Depending on the research, they may receive more funding.
MR: How did you end up collaborating with Lawrence Krauss?
HL: He actually found me. He is the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and heard about me and the challenge through Richard Dawkins, who is on the director’s board of the Origins Project. The Origins Project is working to find the origin of everything so the Origin of Life Challenge fit in well with his project. I ended up joining the board and we have worked together for about a year. He’s a cosmologist and physicist; a very intelligent man. He is the author of “A Universe from Nothing.”
MR: What do you hope will happen after the origin of life is found?
HL: My bottom line is that I’d like the origin of life to be taught all around the world. I want it to be reduced to science because life is chemistry and I do not believe humans simply appeared on the 6th day. What was the trigger that started life? How did it live off the land? I hope we will have these answers in a decade or two.
MR: Do you think the general public is interested in knowing the origin of life?
HL: To summarize, my friends in science think what I’m doing is very cool and are extremely interested. People that I see at the supermarket or barber shop don’t seem to care. They ask why bother and what importance does it really have? Most people don’t think deeply about it, they are too busy worrying about surface level ideas such as getting to work and the kids to school.
MR: How do you think people will benefit from knowing where life originated?
HL: It’s hard to know at this point. It’s like when Columbus started his journey or Newton created the law of gravitation. We never knew about the new Americas or that we would eventually land on the moon. There is also the possibility for spin-off research while searching for the origin of life. Researchers are working with RNA and DNA and maybe we will learn something new and be able to modify them for health benefits. There is so much potential. Most people believe that life only began once. Maybe there were some unsuccessful attempts but it was an improbable event. It happened once and then life evolved at multiplying speed.