Scientists at four of the world’s leading universities have teamed up to investigate the origins of life on Earth, and look for similar biological processes taking place elsewhere in the universe, reports afr.com.
The universities of Cambridge in Britain, Harvard and Chicago in the US and ETH Zurich in Switzerland announced the formation of what they called the Origins Federation on Saturday (Sunday AEDT) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.
“I believe that life is embedded into the laws of physics of the universe,” said Didier Queloz, a leader of the initiative, who has dual appointments at Cambridge and ETH. He was a co-discoverer of the first known exoplanet – a planet orbiting a star other than our sun – in the 1990s.
The longstanding search for extraterrestrial life, whether simple microbes or advanced civilisations, would be supercharged by new interplanetary missions to Mars and Jupiter’s moons and by observatories such as the James Webb telescope, the founding scientists said. Complementary research would focus on the still-mysterious emergence of life on Earth itself.
“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” Professor Queloz said. Scientists had identified more than 5000 exoplanets, and they believed billions existed in the Milky Way galaxy alone.
“The discovery of many different planets is the big game changer,” he said. “We have found a huge diversity of planetary systems and a lot of them are quite different from the solar system.”
Professor Queloz’s Cambridge colleague Emily Mitchell, an evolutionary biologist, believes simple life will be widespread across our galaxy, judging from the speed with which microbes emerged on the young Earth about 4 billion years ago.
Dr Mitchell’s lab is looking for clues about extraterrestrial life from the early biochemical evolution of the first microbes on Earth.
“As we begin to investigate other planets, bio signatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth are just a happy accident or part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological and ecological complexities,” she said.