Dept. of Big Questions: Millions in Grants Flow to Research the Origins of Life

photo: Jaswe/shutterstock

photo: Jaswe/shutterstock

At some point, just the right chemical and environmental conditions on primordial Earth formed the basic building blocks of biology, which led to the formation of cells, which led to plants, animals and people.

How that process happened, and more broadly, how any life could form from non-living matter, is among the big mysteries in science, and one that we only have glimpses into. But across many disciplines, there are a lot of exciting avenues of investigation into this mystery, which makes it a rich topic for private science funders to explore. 

One such funder that has embraced study of the origins of life is the Templeton Foundation, which just made a $2.9 million grant, extending its ongoing interest in the question. This latest grant supports teams of researchers across multiple institutions and disciplines—chemistry, physics, cosmology, biology and machine learning—to weave together varied approaches over the next three years. The project is led by Arizona State University astrobiologist Sara Walker and theoretical physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies, as they work to combine new data on how early life could take shape. 

The work is focused on the huge gap between the very earliest “almost-life” and the ultimate formation of biological systems, the beginning and end stages that researchers partially understand. But the stages in between are still mysterious. So a series of studies will collect data on a huge number of chemical reactions in possible starting scenarios and the behavior of synthetic cells; the scientists hope to learn when they become more life-like. Then they will use algorithms to knit the data together and better understand the conditions needed to form life. 

This is a field in which Templeton has been engrossed for some time now. In 1995, Paul Davies won the Templeton Prize, which “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.” 

That description might give you some insight into the unusual nature of this particular $3 billion foundation, which funds an odd mix of science, philosophy and theology, free markets, and family planning (starting at conception). So in a couple of ways, Templeton is quite a conservative funder, and that interest in theology alongside science particularly troubles a lot of people in the research community. 

But the foundation does make some interesting research grants, including its funding for study into the origins of life. In 2016, for example, it gave $5.4 million to the work of Steven Benner and his Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution. The foundation also seeded the ELSI Origins Network, another institution working on the problem, based in Tokyo. 

Aside from federal agencies, the other major funding player in origins of life research is the Simons Foundation. One of this huge research funder’s main life sciences programs is the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life, which funds a bunch of investigators and post-doctoral fellows to do collaborative, multidisciplinary research. One hallmark of Simons research funding (and Templeton’s, for that matter) is mashing up different fields of research, especially computational and data analysis methods. 

That’s one reason this is such an enticing subject for philanthropy. Aside from the fact that it is a high-stakes research question, literally one of the biggest questions of existence, the potential for discovery is coming from different directions, and will require experts from many fields to interact and coordinate. And there’s so much room for learning, we could see progress coming from any one or combination of them. By funding long-term projects that bring different viewpoints and disciplines together on the origins of life, philanthropists hope to be part of some potentially historic advances in understanding.