The grant will support research conducted by astrobiologist Sara Walker, who has made several key contributions to the study of life's origins, and Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and 1995 Templeton Prize laureate. The three-year series of quantitative studies and analyses is expected to generate new data and insights with respect to the possible pathways between "almost-life" and true biological systems, helping scientists understand both the ways in which life could have originated on Earth and how frequently (and under what conditions) it might have arisen elsewhere in the universe.
In addition, chemist Lee Cronin will lead an effort at the University of Glasgow that uses parallel robotic chemical reactors to explore the relationships between a wide range of environmental starting conditions and their impact on the formation of chemistries necessary for almost-life, while another team led by University of Minnesota biologist Kate Adamala will use cutting-edge techniques to construct synthetic cells ranging from low-complexity molecular circuits to efficient, complex systems in order to study what happens as the cells become more "life-like" — and at which points in the transition cells become more capable of responding to environmental changes. Walker and Davies will integrate the data generated by Cronin's and Adamala's "bottom-up" and "top-down" approaches using machine learning algorithms to develop novel, empirically backed predictions and models for life's emergence.
"In order to understand life's origins, we need a richer understanding of that realm of complex chemistry in the transitions from abiotic to biotic systems," said Paul Wason, vice president for life sciences and genetics at the Templeton Foundation. "This project's data-driven approach will help us understand more about the conditions under which life might emerge — and whether the circumstances that allowed for life’s beginnings on earth are unlikely to have been repeated elsewhere — that is, whether or not we live in a deeply bio-friendly universe."
(Photo credit: Ravi Roshan)