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Humanity’s quest to discover the origins of life in the universe

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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).

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,” said Professor 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 star other than our Sun. The discovery led to him being awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In the three decades since Queloz’s discovery, scientists have discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets. Trillions more are predicted to exist within our Milky Way galaxy alone. Each exoplanet discovery raises more questions 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, give scientists access to huge volumes of new observations and data. Sifting through all this information to understand the emergence of life in the universe will take a big, multidisciplinary network.

In collaboration with chemist and fellow Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak and astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, Queloz announced the formation of such a network at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington, DC. The Origins Federation brings together researchers studying the origins of life at Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and The University of Chicago.

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

These collaborations support the work of researchers like Dr Emily Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Zoology. Mitchell is co-director of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe and an ecological time traveller. 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 at AAAS, Mitchell took participants back to four 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 astrobiological insights into the origins of life elsewhere in the universe.

“As we begin to investigate other planets through the Mars missions, 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,” said Mitchell.

The founding centres of the Origins Federation are The Origins of Life Initiative (Harvard University), Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life (ETH Zurich), the Center for the Origins of Life (University of Chicago), and the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe (University of Cambridge).

The Origins Federation will pursue scientific research topics of interest to its founding centres with a long-term perspective and common milestones. It will strive to establish a stable funding platform to create opportunities for creative and innovative ideas, and to enable young scientists to make a career in this new field. The Origins Federation is open to new members, both centres and individuals, and is committed to developing the mechanisms and structure to achieve that aim.

“The pioneering work of Professor 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 Professor 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.”

Scientists from the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago have founded the Origins Federation, which will advance our understanding of the emergence and early evolution of life, and its place in the cosmos.

L-R: Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamal, Carl Zimmer

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