Where do we come from?

Few existential questions are as big as this one, or spawn as many additional puzzles: What were the origins of life on Earth? What might the origins of life be anywhere else in the universe? For that matter, what is life?

Answers remain elusive. But at the same time we've never had so many promising scientific angles on these problems. We have an ever-improving picture of the deep history of the Earth: From its complex and chaotic formation, to its varying and evolving geochemical and thermodynamical state across the past 4.5 billion years. Technological advances across fields as diverse as astronomy and molecular biology are revealing not only new worlds, replete with their own detailed histories, but also the inner workings and diversity of terrestrial life - from the root functions of genetic material and metabolisms to the extraordinary range of environments that life exploits.

As a field of inquiry, 'origins science', has some unusual challenges though. Researchers still often find themselves pursuing this work as a side project, or doggedly focussing on a pet theory with little opportunity for community support or debate. Much like the broad field of astrobiology, origins of life science (OoL), can be hard to categorize, and hard to find resources for.

That situation could be changing though. Hot on the heels of Yuri Milner's announcement that his Breakthrough Listen project will be supporting a fresh effort at SETI (to the tune of $100M over the next decade) - backed by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy and others - origins of life science is also about to get a boost from a new project.

I can't claim to be impartial, because I'm involved, but I think this could be a critically important moment for OoL science. And it's a great example of how to reach out to a scientific community to encourage progress - a type of effort that is so necessary, but perhaps doesn't reach the public's eye as often as it should.

The kick-off is the formation of a new global network for OoL science - announced today at a press conference held at the Tokyo Institute for Technology. I'll quote from the press release itself:

Where, when, and how did life arise on Earth, and has it happened elsewhere in the universe? These fundamental existential questions are at the forefront of scientific inquiry in an age where remarkable advances in biochemistry, astronomy, earth science, and computation are bringing some of the answers tantalizingly close.

The Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech), already a leader in the quest for life’s origins, announced today that it has been awarded US$5.6 million by the John Templeton Foundation to create a unique global scientific network, the ELSI Origins Network (EON), to further advance these efforts.

"We are honored that the John Templeton Foundation has decided to support this project with ELSI as its base. This substantial grant will help ELSI achieve its scientific and reformative goals of the World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI), introducing a fresh effort to Tokyo Tech. The new EON program will bring focus and original ideas to some of the deepest and most exciting scientific questions of our time," said Yoshinao Mishima, President of Tokyo Institute of Technology...

...At its inception, EON will tackle three overarching questions: How did life emerge on Earth? How common is life in the universe? Are there notions of cause, chance, and necessity that unify life science and the physical sciences into a larger coherent framework for understanding nature?

So, what does this all mean in practice?

For one it will mean hiring and funding a brand new generation of OoL scientists, a collective of young postdoctoral researchers who will work at institutions across the world as well as at the base of operations in Tokyo. It also includes kick-starting a number of competitive research projects by providing resources, and working to get the international scientific community to actually sit down together to talk about their work.

And what better place to tempt people with than the extraordinary environment of Tokyo. To again quote from the press release:

EON Director, Piet Hut of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton and Principal Investigator at ELSI explains, "One of our key goals is to unify the international origins of life community by seeding and nurturing research, training scientists, and providing a stimulating and exciting meeting place. ELSI at Tokyo Tech is perfectly situated for this, as one of Japan's visionary World Premier International institutes, with a vigorous and talented staff already engaged in cutting-edge research, in an environment that fully supports the scientists' needs."

I'm also excited about this project because I'm serving as as a Global Science Coordinator for the EON effort - where I get to be the equivalent of a 'science evangelist', promoting work near and dear to my interests and those of the Columbia University Astrobiology Center.

In a couple of weeks from today's announcement we're holding a very special workshop at Tokyo Tech, to develop what we hope will be a highly informative and influential strategy for OoL science. During this gathering, about thirty scientists from across the planet will attempt to hash out a list of the top questions and investigations that we think should be the priority over the next few years in the quest to decipher life's origins.

These scientific priorities could be to do with the details of abiogenesis - the transitiion from non-living to 'living' chemical systems and the role of polymers like RNA. They could be new computational investigations into emergent and evolving systems. Or perhaps they'll include attempts to build life in new ways in laboratories, to help answer the question of whether or not life is anything special across the cosmos.

It is, to say the least, a teeny bit ambitious. But you'll be able to judge for yourself because in short order we're going to turn this debate into a document - a white-paper - that'll be openly available for all to read, digest, disagree with, and applaud.

Watch this space, the search for life's origins may be about to enter a new era...