By Sophie Wharton ’11, thurj Staff

Illustration by Katherine Goldin

Since the beginning of recorded history, the questions “How did life begin?” and “Are we alone in the universe?” have mystified humans, dominating religious and political debate. Today, Harvard scientists from across four major disciplines have united to grapple with the same age-old questions, using innovative new technologies.

Biologists, chemists, earth and planetary scientists, and astronomers together comprise the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, a grassroots project officially formed in 2005 after recommendations from the Task Force on Science and Technology. The Task Force had recognized the need to bring together researchers working on separate pieces of the same puzzle, to form a bridge between the physical and life sciences. As Dimitar Sasselov, director of the initiative, puts it, “The big issues faced by humanity today and in the near future can only be solved by combining expertise from the life sciences and the physical sciences.”

Sasselov is an astronomer whose research has focused on the diversity of planetary environments. The collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the initiative are helping him gain new perspectives on his own work: “This project is allowing me to follow a path in the discovery and study of distant planets which is much richer in what I look to find on them.” Just as discoveries on a micro-level are guiding the theoretical and observational work of the astrophysicists and planetary scientists, so too are the laboratory experiments conducted by chemists and molecular biologists informed, via their setup and initial conditions, by the macro-level work of the other team members.

Thus, across all levels of inquiry – from the cosmic to the cellular – enormous and often unanticipated strides have been made since the project was launched.  The research conducted by Jack Szostak, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, has helped advance the scientific understanding of how the very first cell may have formed and evolved. His lab developed primitive cell membranes and is studying their dynamic nature and the conditions necessary for them to spontaneously enlarge and divide.

Illustration by Katherine GoldinThe chemists in George Whitesides’ Research Group – also involved in the Origins Team – are trying to find out how energy was available to drive the earliest chemical reactions on pre-biotic Earth. They have made progress in explaining how cells became able to harness the potassium and sodium potentials created by the different concentrations of these compounds outside and inside the cell, and use them as a source of free energy. Another group in the Initiative – Scot T. Martin’s lab – managed to demonstrate that in prebiotic conditions, a reverse version of the Krebs cycle (a key biochemical process in cellular respiration) might have produced the first biomolecules.  The reaction may have been catalyzed by sunlight combining with a particular mineral that is thought to have existed in Earth’s early waters.

On a different front, astronomers on the Origins Team developed a new laser that dramatically improves our ability to measure the size of a star’s “wobble”: a type of oscillation caused by the gravitational pull of orbiting bodies around it, and a proxy for the existence of extrasolar planets that might be capable of harboring life. Until now, only the wobble of giant, gaseous planets with very noticeable effects on stars could be detected. However, with this new laser technology, the sensitivity of detection has increased by about a hundred times, and it is now possible to detect smaller, rockier planets, which are better candidates for sustaining life.

Such exciting findings are evidence that the Initiative is successfully tackling key questions about life’s origins. But research is only one part of its mission: education and outreach are two of the most important goals. Carol Knell, Program Coordinator for the Initiative, has been on board since the beginning and remarks on how publicity and outreach events have progressed since the project’s infancy: “so many more people, nonscientists and scientists, have become aware and excited about the initiative.” Knell helps to organize the Origins Forums, monthly events aimed to give the University community a taste of the current research undertaken by the Initiative. Large audiences regularly come to hear presentations from researchers from Harvard, other universities, or international speakers. During the more informal monthly “Chalk Talks,” graduate students and post docs discuss exciting advances made in their research.

Undergraduates are encouraged to attend all such events, but those interested in a more hands-on experience are welcome to apply for research fellowships to work on a particular project in a team member’s lab. Fellowships are available for Harvard undergraduates during the academic year (wage stipends are provided) and summer fellowships are open to undergraduates at other colleges as well. Knell reports that feedback from students involved in research has been fantastic across the board. As Sasselov notes, “We are uniquely positioned to offer Harvard students an opportunity to combine projects in the intersection of life sciences and physical sciences.” Students can also learn about the astrophysics and biochemistry of life’s origins by taking one of the eight undergraduate courses given by Origins team members at Harvard, including the core course Science A-54 “Life as a Planetary Phenomenon” which is taught by Sasselov.

After the $8 billion hit that Harvard’s endowment took a few months ago, there is fear that funding to the Origins of Life Initiative may suffer too.  The progress of the Initiative is hindered by the lack of a dedicated space for labs, which are currently scattered throughout the University. Nevertheless, the development of a new science campus in Allston – on the other side of the Charles River – offers a promising solution.

Certainly, this interdisciplinary enterprise is one that merits Harvard’s support, as it boldly confronts some of the most fundamental questions about our existence and our universe. And although this team of scientists does not embark upon scientific inquiries with the intention of contributing to philosophical or religious debate, Sasselov holds that one cannot deny that such “new fundamental knowledge is always bound to shape human’s total worldview.”

And that fundamental knowledge cannot come about without scientific collaboration across many fields. The questions of whether we are alone in the universe or how we came to be here will most likely not be answered by a team composed solely of biologists or solely of astronomers. It will be up to teams of scientists from a variety of disciplines – like the Origins of Life Initiative – to take on that challenge.