Jack Szostak
At the symposium, Jack Szostak reviews his research, which seeks to learn about primitive cells by trying to build them in the lab. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

A cross-faculty effort to understand life’s most basic mystery – how complex chemicals can become the simplest organisms – kicked off Wednesday (Nov. 8) with a symposium at the Gutman Conference Center.

The event took about 140 audience members on a tour of the task ahead for the project’s members. Over the three-and-a-half hour program, speakers discussed cell-like fatty structures that spontaneously generate, conditions on a primordial Earth that led to life, and recent images from a Mars rover examining the Red Planet’s geology.

Called Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, the new program is among several cutting-edge, interdisciplinary initiatives recommended in the spring of 2003 by a faculty task force examining future directions for scientific research at Harvard.

The initiative, directed by Astronomy Professor Dimitar Sasselov, marked its official beginning with an afternoon symposium during which three prominent members – Sasselov, George Whitesides, and Jack Szostak – discussed the challenges ahead. The symposium ended with a public lecture by Robert Hazen, the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University and a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory.

Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman welcomed both the audience to the symposium and the Origins of Life Initiative into action.

Hyman, who co-chaired the Task Force on Science and Technology, whose work led to the Origins of Life’s creation, said it was begun to foster cross-faculty collaboration among faculty members who may be separately working on similar questions.

The Task Force on Science and Technology, charged with identifying needs and opportunities in scientific research at Harvard, began its work in the fall of 2003. It generated 70 separate responses from faculty members after issuing a call for ideas in January 2004. At the task force’s urging, faculty worked over the next year and a half to further develop and combine those ideas into discrete initiatives.

The Origins of Life Initiative was created after the task force heard presentations from two different groups of researchers on how life got its start.

“Nobody expected to have two separate talks on the origin of life, but indeed we had them,” Hyman said, adding that coming from such different fields, there was no guarantee they could work together. “To my absolute joy, this group of faculty has done so. They’re off to an amazing start.”

Origins of Life unites chemists and molecular biologists – who examine how the chemical building blocks of life combine to create simple organisms – with planetary scientists, astrophysicists, and cosmochemists – who look at the related question of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe and environmental conditions on other planets.

Faculty associated with the Origins of Life Initiative include Sasselov; Whitesides, the Flowers University Professor; Szostak, professor of genetics; Professor of Geochemistry Stein Jacobsen; Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Chemistry Scot Martin; and Fisher Professor of Natural History and Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Andrew Knoll.

Szostak reviewed his research, which seeks to learn about primitive cells by trying to build them in the lab. The work shows that under certain conditions fatty acids spontaneously form vesicles – essentially bubbles – that can enlarge and multiply.

Szostak said the question of the origins of life is actually many questions. Szostak’s research also involves searching for simple variants of RNA and DNA – the molecules that store the information of life and through which that information is passed from generation to generation – for molecules that might have been progenitors with the potential for rapid replication.

Whitesides outlined the considerable challenges to be overcome if questions about the origins of life are to be answered. While he said that he believes the field is on the verge of a major breakthrough, he said the pieces known today don’t add up to a coherent picture. There are far too many variables, Whitesides said, to be able to apply research like Szostak’s to the early Earth and to extend that to other planets, both in our own solar system and those being found orbiting other stars.

Still, he said, now is a good time for such an initiative to begin work. Analytic methods have been greatly sped up by modern technology, and knowledge has advanced in related subjects such as metabolism and understanding the conditions on the early Earth.

Despite the knowledge accumulating as chemists work from the molecule up and as biologists work from the organism down, the central question of how life first arose is not going to yield its secrets easily, Whitesides said.

The way of the universe is to go from order to chaos, he said, but on the occasion when life was created, that was reversed and the universe went from chaos to order. Finding the answer will take input from a wide variety of fields.

“Above all, it requires a couple of really good ideas,” Whitesides said.

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