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Department of Physics

The Cavendish Laboratory
From left to right - Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamala, Carl Zimmer. Landscape with Milky way galaxy. Sunrise and Earth view from space with Milky way galaxy. (Elements of this image provided by NASA).

For thousands of years, humanity and science have contemplated the origins of life in the Universe. While today’s scientists are well-equipped with innovative technologies, humanity has a long way to go before we fully understand the fundamental aspects of what life is and how it forms.

“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” says Didier Queloz, who directs the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe at Cambridge and ETH Zurich’s Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life. While still a doctoral student Queloz was the first to discover an exoplanet - a planet orbiting a solar-type star outside of Earth’s solar system. A discovery for which he would later receive a Nobel Prize in physics. Within a generation, scientists have now discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets and predict the potential existence of trillions more in the Milky Way galaxy alone. Each discovery inspires more questions than answers about how and why life emerged on Earth and whether it exists elsewhere in the universe. Technological advancements, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and interplanetary missions to Mars, accelerate access to an overwhelming volume of new observations and data, such that it will take the convergence of a multidisciplinary network to understand the emergence of life in the universe.

Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard, and Chicago found the “Origins Federation”

Joining forces with chemist and fellow Nobel Laureate, Jack Szostak and astronomer, Dimitar Sasselov, Didier Queloz announced the founding of a new “Origins Federation” during the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). While a fictional interstellar federation might immediately spring to mind, this international alliance brings together the expertise of researchers working in the origins of life centers and initiatives at the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and The University of Chicago.

Together, scientists will explore the chemical and physical processes of living organisms and environmental conditions hospitable to supporting life on other planets. “The Origins Federation,” Queloz commented, “builds upon a long-standing collegial relationship strengthened through a shared collaboration in a recently completed project with the Simons Foundation.”

What humanity could learn from extra-terrestrial biosignatures

Such collaborations support the work of researchers like Zoology professor, Emily Mitchell. Mitchell, who works with Queloz in Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe is an ecological time traveler. She uses field-based laser-scanning and statistical mathematical ecology on 580-million-year-old fossils of deep-sea organisms to determine the driving factors that influence the macro-evolutionary patterns of life on Earth. Speaking during ETH Zurich’s Origins of Life session at the AAAS, Mitchell took participants back in time to 4-billion years ago when Earth’s early atmosphere - devoid of oxygen and steeped in methane – showed its first signs of microbial life. She spoke about how life survives in extreme environments and then evolves offering potential Astro-biological insights into the origins of life elsewhere in the universe.

“As we begin to investigate other planets, through the Mars missions,” Mitchell says, “biosignatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth is just a happy accident or part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological and ecological complexities.”

Colonizing space with synthetic cells

While complex biological cells are not yet fully understood, synthetic cells allow biochemists, like Kate Adamala, University of Minnesota’s Protobiology Lab to deconstruct complex systems into simpler parts. Parts that allow scientists to understand the basic principles of life and evolution not only on Earth, but potentially life on other planets in the solar system. Adamala launched her quest to build life from scratch as a graduate student at Harvard working with Nobel Laureate, Jack Szostak. She endeavors to create simple, cell-like bioreactors resembling the earliest forms of life by applying the principles of engineering to biology. During the AAAS, Adamala explained how synthetic cells allow scientists to study the past, present, and future of life in the universe. Unlike biological cells, it is possible to digitalize synthetic cells and transmit them across vast distances to create, for example, on demand medication or vaccines – an “Astro-pharmacy” that could potentially support life on spaceship, or even a future Martian colony. Until such time, synthetic cells offer practical applications for humanity in terms of sustainable energy systems, higher crop yields, and biomedical therapies.

What is life?

While there is not yet a comprehensive definition of life, the quest to discover its origins has inspired enthusiasm, new collaborations, and opened the doors within the scientific community’s most hallowed halls.

"The pioneering work of Prof Queloz has allowed astronomers and physicists to make advances that were unthinkable only a few years ago, both in the discovery of planets which could host life and the development of techniques to study them," said Prof. Andy Parker, head of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. "But now we need to bring the full range of our scientific understanding to bear in order to understand what life really is and whether it exists on these newly discovered planets. The Cavendish Laboratory is proud to host the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe and to partner with the Origins Federation to lead this quest."

Further information

Didier Queloz announced the Origins Federation at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) during the session: "Origins of Life: Humanity’s Quest to Discover the Nature of Life in the Universe" hosted by Carl Zimmer, columnist for The New York Times and author of “Life’s Edge: The search for what it means to be alive”.

Read the public announcement 


From left to right - Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamal, Carl Zimmer. Landscape with Milky way galaxy. Sunrise and Earth view from space with Milky way galaxy. (Elements of this image furnished by NASA).

Credit: ETH Zurich


This article was first published on ETH Zurich website