The Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University have received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish "The Origins Project," a center for integrated research, education and public outreach focused on the chemistry that may have led to the origin of life. The center also includes the participation of Spelman College in Atlanta and Jackson State University in Mississippi.
The NSF is supporting The Origins Project as part of an effort to address "big picture" questions in chemistry through the formation of Chemical Bonding Centers (CBC).
"Our ultimate goal is to understand which molecules and which chemical reactions started life on Earth around 3 billion years ago, and to engage the public in this scientific quest," said Nicholas Hud, associate professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Georgia Tech and principal investigator of The Origins Project.
"We now know the molecular coding sequence for the human genome, a scientific achievement that seemed very remote two decades ago. We believe it is also only a matter of time and effort before we will know what is required to get life started," said Emory's David Lynn, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Chemistry and Biology. Lynn will co-lead the center.
The CBC program is designed to support the formation of centers that can address major, long-term basic chemical research problems that have the potential to produce both transformative research and innovation in the field. The Georgia Tech-Emory grant is Phase I funding; at the end of Phase I in three years, the NSF may choose to approve The Origins Project for Phase II funding, which will provide up to $15 million over five years.
The center's research will seek to understand what molecules were present on the prebiotic earth, and to understand how molecular building blocks that are either identical or similar to ones found in life today can spontaneously form larger molecules, similar to proteins and DNA, that are essential for life to exist.
"We are particularly excited about the outreach projects of the center that involve college and high school students," said Hud. "The origin of life is one of the most intriguing questions of all time and one that can certainly attract young people to the field of chemistry, an area of national need."
"The creation of this center in Atlanta also provides us outreach opportunities for dialogue and discussion around some of the more divisive issues between science and religion and the origin of life,"said Lynn.
"It's a big puzzle," said Hud. "We will be looking at several chemical hypotheses regarding the origin of life. We want to understand the formation of the first lifelike polymers, and from that point understand the evolution of these polymers into something that could have given rise to life as we know it."