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Winners of Origin of Life Challenge announced

June 06, 2012

In mid-2011, retired California chemist and entrepreneur Harry Lonsdale issued a challenge to the origin of life scientific community to come up with novel ideas for explaining the mechanism of life’s origin, through the Origin of Life Challenge.

Dozens of proposals were received and evaluated by an international panel of experts. The winners were announced June 6 by Lonsdale in collaboration with the Origins Project at Arizona State University and its director Lawrence Krauss. Lonsdale is co-founder of the high tech company, Bend Research Inc., Bend, Ore., and Krauss is an ASU Foundation Professor.

Unraveling life’s origin won't be easy. Earth was a hellish place when life started some 3 to 4 billion years ago. It was a rocky planet with oceans and a primitive, oxygen-free atmosphere, subject to rampant volcanism and intense solar radiation, with frequent impacts from asteroids and comets. Yet, that was the cradle of life, and as far as we know the only life in the universe. Somehow life started and, through replication of its blueprint and the extraction of energy from its environment, life gained a toehold here on Earth, so that Darwinian evolution could begin its inexorable march – toward us.

Co-winners of the $50,000 prize in response to the Origin of Life Challenge were two British chemists, John Sutherland at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Molecular Biology, Cambridge, and Matthew Powner at University College, London. They also received a $150,000 one-year grant to pursue their research in the field. 

The Sutherland-Powner team is focused on understanding the chemistry of the replication mechanism of first life. All biological replication is based on the nucleic acid polymers RNA and DNA, which carry the genetic code. The team seeks to demonstrate the selective generation of the RNA building blocks and other key biological molecules from simple feedstock molecules under the presumed environmental conditions of pre-biotic Earth. If successful, the Sutherland-Powner team will have demonstrated how RNA could have emerged from plausible chemical reactions on the early Earth.

A $90,000 one-year grant was also made to a joint Canadian-U.S. team consisting of Niles Lehman of Portland State University, Portland, Ore.; Peter Unrau of Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada; and Paul Higgs of McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. That team will explore the ways in which potential information stored within random pieces of RNA can spontaneously assemble into sets of self-replicating molecules.

The Lehman-Unrau-Higgs team will mix large pools containing small fragments of non-functional RNA under a range of plausible pre-biotic conditions, looking for RNAs that have the ability to make copies of themselves, as well as catalyze other important biochemical reactions. If successful, they will have demonstrated the transition from “dead” chemicals to a living state of autonomous replication.

A third, $60,000 grant was made to the team of Wenonah Vercoutere of NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and David Deamer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That team will attempt to demonstrate how simple molecules called nucleotides can polymerize to form RNA when they are organized within membranous structures and exposed to conditions simulating volcanic hot springs. If successful, they will have shown how proto-cells containing RNA could have been produced in the pre-biotic environment.

“These researchers are among the best in the world, and I am excited to see the results of their work,” Lonsdale said. “Ultimately, it is my hope that within a decade or two the fruits of this research will help provide answers to the origin of life question, and that a rational model for life’s origin will be taught in every biology classroom in the world.”

Krauss said the Origin of Life Challenge grants fit perfectly into the mission of the Origins Project at ASU – which is to ask the big questions. “The Origins Project is thrilled to partner with Harry Lonsdale to further his remarkable vision of pushing forward the frontiers of our understanding of life’s origin,” Krauss explained. “It is my hope that these awards will motivate others to contribute support for investigating the important foundational questions that drive the Origins Project and, more broadly, fundamental science everywhere.”

Harry Lonsdale, (541) 389-5900, ext. 118;
Lawrence Krauss, (480) 965-6378

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