Friday, June 29, 2012

The Origin Of Life Challenge: Searching For How Life Began

Three teams have recently been selected for funding as part of a private challenge focused on research in the origins of life. The Origin of Life Challenge is funded by chemist and entrepreneur Harry Lonsdale who, along with a team of referees including Chris McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center, selected the winners.

Considered the blueprint of life, DNA is found in all living cells. 
DNA image
Image Credit: Illustration by Dr. Frank Cucinotta, NASA/Johnson Space Center, and Prem Saganti, Lockheed Martin

“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.”

Though not the expressed intention, all three proposals wound up examining some aspect of the RNA world. RNA is thought to be the precursor to DNA, at one time not only carrying genetic information but also acting as a catalyst.

The winning selection was from 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. 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. A third grant was extended for a single year to Wenonah Vercoutere ofNASA 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.

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Written by: Nola Taylor Redd

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