Origin of Life Probed in Scientific Contest
In 2011, retired chemist and entrepreneur Harry Lonsdale announced his plans to fund research on how life originally formed.
Of the 76 proposals submitted to his Origin of Life Challenge, Lonsdale and his team of experts selected three to fund for at least the next year, with the potential to continue financial support in the future.
How life first developed is a poorly-understood process. Even today, scientists have attempted to determine its origins using a variety of methods.
NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, who served as a referee to help sort through the proposals, pointed out that the submitted proposals spanned a wide variety of potential research.
“The scientific study of the origin of life is still early enough that there’s not even a consensus on how to approach the problem,” McKay said.
“That’s kind of exciting, but also kind of intimidating, because we don’t know what’s going to be the right answer.”
The search for life
Figuring out how life first started may seem like it should be simple — after all, life is everywhere on Earth. But the search is really far more complicated.
For one thing, scientists can’t actually work backward. McKay explained that Darwinian evolution, the dominant process on the planet, involves self-replication, a process only found in living things, and thus can’t be responsible for the original creation of life.
The other problem is that life itself has destroyed the evidence. As the planet has evolved over the years, living creatures have significantly changed their environments.
“What led to life has been lost in the long stretch of eons,” McKay said. “It’s been trampled on by small animals and children.”
Finding clues on the active Earth remains a challenge, which is why McKay is so enamored of searching on more stagnant planets. Mars, for instance, has changed very little over the last four billion years, so if life evolved there, evidence of its origin might still be present.