University scientists team with NASA to discover how life began

By Josh Winters

How did life begin on Earth? University scientists may come closer to finding an answer to this mystery with the help of a five-year $8 million dollar grant from NASA.

The University has teamed together with 14 other universities, research laboratories and NASA centers participating in the NASA Astrobiology Institute, to study the diversity and evolution of life on Earth.

The NAI is an institute dedicated to searching for environments hospitable to life in our solar system and on other planets.

The University NAI team is based in the Institute for Genomic Biology. Gene Robinson, director of the IGB, is thrilled to see the project unfold on campus. 

“This bold research program fits perfectly at the IGB, which was established to help faculty compete for the large grants that are necessary to address grand challenges with a team-based multidisciplinary approach,” Robinson said in a press release. “The NASA award reflects the creativity and vision of the faculty in the Biocomplexity research theme, the IGB and the campus as a whole.”

The University’s research team has established four research themes for their work on the project: to develop a mathematical understanding of the physical principles of the emergence and its evolution, “constrain the nature of life before the Last Common Universal Ancestor,” study how life evolved on Earth and determine what factors determine the rate of evolution for life. 

Nigel Goldenfeld, director of the Institute for Universal Biology and physics professor, is the principal researcher on the University’s team.

“The main goal of our research is to understand the universal principles that govern the emergence of life, wherever it may arise,” said Goldenfeld. “NASA likes to call this ‘universal biology.’”

Goldenfeld explained that the concept of universal biology is similar to how computers work today. All computers operate on the universal mathematical principles of logic and algorithms, he said, whether the computer is a Mac or a PC. He alluded that even though they may appear to be very different, all computers share certain characteristics. 

“Modern computers are designed to apply the fundamental mathematical principles of Turing and Von Neumann. Could you go the other way round: take an iPhone and figure out these fundamental mathematical principles if you did not know them?” asked Goldenfeld. “In a sense that is what we want to do with biology, take life on Earth and reverse-engineer to figure out what are the basic principles behind living organisms.” 

One theory of the origin of life, serpentinization, has interested Elbert Branscomb, faculty member for the department of physics and the IGB and member of the University NAI team. 

Serpentinization, Branscomb said, is not a new theory; in fact, it has been around for roughly 30 years. However, it has only recently been picking up steam in the scientific community. Branscomb’s further research into the serpentinization theory was funded through the NAI grant the University received. 

Branscomb said what makes the theory so compelling is its explanation for how ATP, a chemical fuel essential to cells, could have been created by thermal vents at the bottom of the early Earth’s oceans. 

“One of the things about life is that its not just chemistry; it is not just if you stuck all the molecules together in the right size bag, nothing happens. You need the engine that drives (it),” said Branscomb. “It’s a Rube Goldberg machine of immense complexity.”

When the Earth was still young, it was largely covered with a weak acidic ocean. Far below the primeval ocean’s surface, the Earth’s tectonic activity was continuously producing new crust on the ocean floor. As new crust began to cool and crack, the acidic seawater was pushed into these cracks and produced a chemical reaction with minerals beneath the surface to create a highly alkaline solution that was pushed back into the ocean by chimney-like thermal vents, Branscomb said. 

Inside these vents, microscopic compartment formed a proton gradient that separated the acidic ocean from the alkaline solution coming from the vents. Branscomb said the gradient that was created in these vents billions of years ago is almost identical to the proton gradient that exists in all living cells today.

By studying theories like serpentinization, Goldenfeld said, scientists could one day develop a universal origin of life theory.

“We do not currently have a theory of living systems that convinces us that life is a general phenomenon,” said Goldenfeld. “So, because we have not detected life elsewhere, we do not know if it is there or not.”

Josh can be reached at [email protected]