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 winning selection, which received a $50,000 prize as well as a one-year grant to pursue their research, were British chemists John Sutherland at the Medical Research Council Laboratory in Molecular Biology in Cambridge and Matthew Downer at University College, London. They intend to study the prebiotic soup in which RNA may have originally formed, hoping to replicate the process. According to Sutherland, he and Downer are “privileged and eager to use Harry’s money to fund a fresh assault on the origins of life problem.”
A second one-year grant was awarded to a Canadian-American team exploring how a complex pool of short RNAs, nucleotides, and inorganic material might become self-replicating RNA. The team, which includes Niles Lehman of Portland State University in Oregon, Peter Unrau of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and Paul Higgs of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, will construct a laboratory system to resemble primordial Earth. Instead of focusing on only a single class of enzymes, they intend to watch for the discovery and use of any or all of them.
A third grant was extended for a single year to Wenonah Vercoutere of NASA Ames Research Center in California and David Deamer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who will develop and test a lab simulation of volcanic hot springs and the steps that may have led to the formation of RNA.