Harvard's new mission: Find out how life began

Science: The initiative is part of an effort key in the debate over evolution.

August 21, 2005|By Gareth Cook | Gareth Cook,THE BOSTON GLOBE

Harvard University is launching a broad initiative to discover how life began, joining an ambitious scientific assault on age-old questions that are central to the debate over the theory of evolution.

The Harvard project, which is likely to start with about $1 million annually from the university, will bring together scientists from fields as disparate as astronomy and biology, to understand how life emerged from the chemical soup of early Earth, and how this might have happened on distant planets.

Known as the Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative, the project is still in its early stages, and fundraising has not begun, the scientists said.

But the university has promised the researchers several years of seed money, and has asked the team to make much grander plans, including new faculty and a collection of multimillion-dollar facilities.

The initiative begins amid increasing contention over the teaching of evolution, prompted by proponents of theory of "intelligent design," who argue that even the most modest cell is too complex, too finely tuned, to have come about without unseen intelligence.

President Bush said recently that intelligent design should be discussed in schools, along with evolution. Like intelligent design, the Harvard project begins with awe at the nature of life, and with an admission that, almost 150 years after Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species, scientists cannot explain how the process began.

Now, encouraged by a confluence of scientific advances - such as the discovery of water on Mars and an increased understanding of the chemistry of early Earth - the Harvard scientists hope to help change that.

"We start with a mutual acknowledgment of the profound complexity of living systems," said David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard. But "my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

The theory of evolution has been both fascinating and religiously charged since its beginnings, because it speaks directly to the place of people in the natural order. In another era, the idea that humans are the close cousins of apes - a scientific fact now supported by overwhelming evidence - was seen as offensive and preposterous.

Today's research of origins focuses on questions that seem as strange as the study of "ape men" once did: How can life arise from nonlife? How easy is it for this to happen? And does the universe teem with life, or is Earth a solitary island?

At Harvard, the Origins of Life Initiative is part of a rethinking of how to conduct scientific research at the university.

Many of science's most interesting questions are emerging in the boundaries between traditional disciplines such as physics, chemistry and biology, yet universities are largely organized by those disciplines.

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers is a proponent of the view that universities must develop new structures to encourage interdisciplinary science. And new science laboratories based on this are at the center of the plans for a sprawling new campus in Allston.

On short list

The Harvard origins initiative is on a short list of projects being considered for this campus, along with the widely discussed Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which aspires to bring together biologists, chemists, doctors and others.

Today, scientists said, Harvard is considered something of an underdog in the field of the origins of life, compared with powerhouses such as the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. But the university has tremendous resources, including leading scientists who work in related areas.

"I hope that Summers is batting for a home run," said Steven Benner, a University of Florida scientist who is considered one of the world's top chemists in origins-of-life research. "It is quite gratifying to see Harvard is going for a solution to a problem that will be remembered 100 years from now."

Harvard has made its move at a time of increased interest in the possibility of life on other planets. Over the past decade, astronomers have discovered more than 150 planets orbiting distant suns, suggesting that the galaxy is littered with them. At the same time, biologists have been finding that life can survive in much more hostile environments than thought possible - such as microbes that live deep in rock or in searingly acidic water - meaning that planets with more extreme environments might support life.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been driving the field forward, said Jonathan I. Lunine, a co-director of the University of Arizona's Life and Planets Astrobiology Center, which was officially launched in June.

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