Scientists from four of the world’s top universities have teamed up to investigate the origins of life on Earth and search for similar biological processes taking place elsewhere in the universe.
The universities of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, Harvard and Chicago in the United States and ETH Zürich in Switzerland announced on Saturday the formation of what they called the Origins Federation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.
“I believe that life is rooted in the laws of physics of the universe,” said Didier Queloz, a leader of the initiative, who has a dual post at Cambridge and ETH. He was co-discoverer of the first known exoplanet – a planet orbiting a star other than our sun – in the 1990s.
The long-standing search for extraterrestrial life – from simple microbes to advanced civilizations – will be bolstered by new interplanetary missions to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and by observatories such as the James Webb Telescope, said the founding scientists. Further research will focus on the still mysterious emergence of life on Earth itself.
“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” Queloz said. Scientists have identified more than 5,000 exoplanets and they believe there are billions of them in the Milky Way galaxy alone.
“The discovery of many different planets is a game-changer,” Queloz said. “We found a great diversity of planetary systems and many of them are quite different from the solar system.”
His Cambridge colleague, evolutionary biologist Emily Mitchell, thinks simple life will be widespread in our galaxy, judging by the rate at which microbes emerged on young Earth around 4 billion years ago. .
Mitchell’s lab searches for clues to extraterrestrial life from the early biochemical evolution of the first microbes on Earth. “As we begin to investigate other planets,” she said, “biosignatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth is just a happy accident or are part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological characteristics and ecological complexities.
But the discovery of extraterrestrial life probably wouldn’t be a one-off, neat event. “A life detection announcement is unlikely to come from a single piece of data,” said Heather Graham, an astrobiologist at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center.
“If we get a really cool result from a Mars rover or a telescope, we’ll have to look some other way to confirm it. We started thinking about life detection and biosignature detection as being sequences of data rather than singular data elements.
Kate Adamala of the University of Minnesota studies the origins of life by making simple synthetic cells in her lab. “Chemistry itch to create life, but creating intelligent life is much harder,” she said.
“And then staying alive as an intelligent life form could be really difficult.” Alien civilizations might tend to destroy themselves with their advanced technologies, she suggested.
Queloz agreed that while simple life probably pervades the universe, high-tech civilizations might be exceedingly rare. “As you gain more knowledge, it becomes easier to destroy yourself. Maybe there is some sort of end of the world waiting for us,” he said.