$50,000 AWARD FOR BEST PROPOSAL
$2,000,000 in Potential Research Funding
June 6, 2012
WINNERS OF ORIGIN OF LIFE CHALLENGE ANNOUNCED
Competition seeks novel approaches to determining the origin of life on Earth
La Quinta, Calif., and Tempe, Ariz. -- 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.”
Harry Lonsdale, (541) 389-5900, ext. 118; email@example.com
Lawrence Krauss, (480) 965-6378
The open period for the submission of proposals in response to the Origin of Life Challenge ended on Dec. 31, 2011. We received more than 70 submissions. If you submitted a proposal, we appreciate your interest in our Challenge and thank you for your effort. We will announce the winner or winners on this website some time around the end of April 2012, after our peer review panel has evaluated the proposals.
The sponsor named below is offering an award of $50,000 for the best original proposal pertaining to the study of the origin of life on Earth, including an outline of work to be performed in support of the proposal. Multiple awards may be made. "Life" is defined here as a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. The proposal should take into account the conditions, materials, and energy sources believed to have existed on the prebiotic Earth. Submissions 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. Submitters are encouraged to offer unconventional hypotheses that nonetheless can be subject to experimental validation. Specific questions to be addressed include:
- What were the nature and genesis of the first macromolecules on the prebiotic earth? How did the building blocks that comprise these macromolecules become available and how were they assembled?
- How did prebiotic molecules first acquire the capacity for storing genetic information and how did the genetic machinery evolve?
- At what stage in the origin of life did cells originate, and what did they contain? How did those primitive cells evolve to
modern biological cells?
- What was the chemistry of the first metabolic pathway(s) and how did that metabolism evolve to modern cellular metabolism?
- At what stage did proteins become involved in metabolic processes and how did the link first arise between genetic molecules and other functional molecules, such as enzymes?
All submissions will be reviewed by a panel of scientific experts. Submissions should contain a statement of work to be performed and a letter of institutional support where appropriate. Submissions that suggest a multidisciplinary approach should describe how the necessary research capabilities will be provided. Submissions that rely on extraterrestrial sources of key materials must describe in detail how those materials would have been generated. Submissions involving the supernatural or that violate physical laws will not be considered.
Submissions that are deemed highly meritorious by the reviewing panel will be eligible for additional research funding of up to $2,000,000 over a multi-year period, at the discretion of the sponsor.
Electronic submissions are requested. All submissions shall be in English (minimum 10 point type) and limited to 10 single-spaced pages, including figures, but excluding citations. Submissions will be accepted beginning July 1, 2011, with a final deadline of December 31, 2011. The confidentiality of all proposals will be protected using guidelines established by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The winner(s) will be announced and the award(s) will be made early in 2012. Until that time, the funds for the award are being held in a trust account by the law firm of Hurley Re, PC. Confirmation may be obtained by email to: OriginofLifeAccount@hurley-re.com.
To make a submission, please follow the Instructions for Submissions.