September 24, 2007
60, Number 5
September 24, 2007
Study to take ‘big picture, big puzzle’ view of origins of life through chemistry
By beverly clark
Emory and the Georgia Institute of Technology have received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish “The Origins Project,” a center for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The center also includes the participation of Spelman College and Jackson State University.
The NSF is supporting the Origins Project as part of an effort to address “big picture” questions in chemistry through the formation of Chemical Bonding Centers.
Emory’s David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology, will co-lead the center with Nicholas Hud, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Georgia Tech and principal investigator of project.
“Our ultimate goal is to understand which molecules and which chemical reactions started life on Earth around 3 billion years ago, and to engage the public in this scientific quest,” said Hud.
“We now know the molecular coding sequence for the human genome, a scientific achievement that seemed very remote two decades ago. We believe it is also only a matter of time and effort before we will know what is required to get life started,” said Lynn.
“The creation of this center in Atlanta also provides us outreach opportunities for dialogue and discussion around some of the more divisive issues between science and religion and the origin of life,” said Lynn.
The CBC program is designed to support the formation of centers that can address major, long-term basic chemical research problems that have the potential to produce both transformative research and innovation in the field. The Origins grant is Phase I funding; at the end of Phase I in three years, the NSF may choose to approve the project for Phase II funding, which will provide up to $15 million over five years.
The center’s research will seek to understand what molecules were present on the prebiotic earth, and to understand how molecular building blocks that are either identical or similar to ones found in life today can spontaneously form larger molecules, similar to proteins and DNA, that are essential for life to exist.
“We are particularly excited about the outreach projects of the center that involve college and high school students,” said Hud. “The origin of life is one of the most intriguing questions of all time and one that can certainly attract young people to the field of chemistry, an area of national need.
“It’s a big puzzle,” said Hud. “We will be looking at several chemical hypotheses regarding the origin of life. We want to understand the formation of the first lifelike polymers, and from that point understand the evolution of these polymers into something that could have given rise to life as we know it.”