Charles Darwin rejected the Genesis account of creation written by Moses. Lingering doubts over the origins of life, however, forced Darwin to reject atheism and embrace agnosticism: “The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”
More than 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, this “mystery of the beginning of all things” continues to be elusive.
With a legion of unanswered evolution issues still on the table, aggressive initiatives to answer Darwin’s lingering “mystery” have been launched. With a line drawn in the sand, the race is on with two major contenders vying for the discovery.
In 2005, Harvard University started an annual fund for origin of life research with $1 million. At the time, team leader David R Liu, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, speculated on the outcome: ”My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention.”
Early this month, seven years later after launching the initial Harvard program, now known as the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, finally announced to The Jeffrey Epstein Foundation, their current main financial sponsor, they were close to understanding the link between chemical kinetics and when life takes over.
The Harvard program, now directed by Professor Martin Novak, has directed research to explore the popular RNA world model origin of life theory. Novak recently, however, highlighted the major hurdle the research team has encountered: “many events need to occur for molecules to become more sustainable.”
Now, a new contender in the race to find the origin of species has emerged on the west coast. The once political darling of environmentalists, philanthropist Harry Lonsdale, is narrowing the search to find three winners for his “Origin of Life Challenge: How did life begin” competition.
An award of $50,000 will go for the best proposal with a potential for another $2 million more. Lonsdale began accepting applications in July 2011 with a final deadline of December 31, 2011. Applicants were charged with specific guidelines:
The proposal should take into account the conditions, materials, and energy sources believed to have existed on the prebiotic Earth. Submission should provide a cogent hypothesis for how life first arose, including its plausible chemistry, and for how primitive life could have evolved to modern biological cells, including the present genetic material and metabolism.
In the search, Lonsdale has narrowed the contest to three research teams, seven people on three different teams and seven institutions.
When asked in an interview with journalist Suzan Mazur concerning what the winning theoretical model should look like, Lonsdale said that the winning papers should be “based on the RNA world” model.
Upon further questioning by Mazur about the quality of the proposals, Lonsdale lamented: “I must say I was very much underwhelmed by the breadth of their proposals. Even the experts I drew together in San Diego a month or so ago, even they don’t have a single clear model of how life began. There’s no universal agreement.”
The RNA world theory for the origin of life has circulated for at least four decades with scientists lining up on both sides. Theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher, Stuart Kauffman of the University of Vermont, is an RNA critic, along with Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton.
For University of California, Santa Cruz, chemistry professor David Deamer, the theory that RNA could have catalyzed and evolved outside the barrier of a cell membrane is untenable. The late Stanley Miller had argued that the RNA world would be “unlikely” in his early Earth’s high temperature theory.
Other RNA world critics include New York University chemist, Robert Shapiro, Dean Kenyon San of Francisco State University, Gordon C Mills of the University of Texas, Hubert Yockey of the University of California at Berkley, Gerald F. Joyce of the Research Institute of Scripps Clinic, and Leslie Orgel from Oxford University.
Francis Crick, discoverer of the DNA structure, commented on the RNA world model in 1980:
An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to been satisfied to get it going.
While the origin of life was a mystery for Darwin, after 150 years since the publication of The Origin of Species, scientific investigations into the origin of life have reached the edge−the scientific evidence is pointing to the Moses miracle rather than a discoverable natural law.
Despite a history of failures with an RNA world model, investigations from the east sponsored by Jeffrey Epstein and investigations from the west sponsored by Harry Lonsdale, the race is on to uncover the ever elusive origin of life mystery.
June 6th, 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 (http://originlife.org).
Dozens of proposals were received and evaluated by an international panel of experts. The winners were announced today by Lonsdale in collaboration with the Origins Project at Arizona State University and its director Lawrence Krauss (http://origins.asu.edu). Lonsdale is co-founder of the high tech company, Bend Research Inc., Bend, Ore., (http://www.bendresearch.com) 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.”
Provided by Arizona State University