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21 April, 2021 - 21:04 By Tony Quested

Cambridge scientists unite to discover origin and meaning of life on earth

Cambridge University is driving an historic initiative to learn more about the origins of life on Earth and throughout the Universe in a move that could  help build more sustainable living environments across planetary frontiers.

The venture will bring together physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians and earth scientists to answer fundamental questions on the origin and nature of life in the Universe.

Is there alien life? Which planets could sustain life? The research Trekkers will push at every frontier to fill in metaphorical black holes and discover whether the birth of the Earth could be replicated. Is there a chemical formula that could prove failsafe in breeding digital ecological twins in a planetary sense?

Led by 2019 Physics Nobel Laureate Professor Didier Queloz, the Cambridge Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe will be the driving force for the development of a new Cambridge research community investigating life in the Universe – from understanding how it emerged on Earth to examining the processes that could make other planets suitable for life.

The initiative comes at a crucial moment in science, as scientists are able to study exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than our Sun – in ever-greater detail, and outstanding progress is being made in prebiotic chemistry: carefully-regulated laboratory experiments to recreate the conditions when life first formed on Earth.

For example, the recent successful landing of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover set in motion one of the greatest international scientific endeavours of recent decades. 

Within the next 10 years, samples returned from a four-billion-year-old lake deposit on Mars will offer a unique window on the Solar System as it was when life originated on Earth and could provide evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet.

“These recent revolutions and future perspectives offered by next-generation space missions mean that the planets are aligned for us to create a vibrant new field at the cutting edge of modern science,” said Queloz, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Director of the Initiative.

Building on the University’s research excellence and enhancing the multidisciplinary research conducted in various departments of the School of the Physical Sciences, the focus of the research within the new Initiative will be to understand the origins and physical properties of planets throughout the Universe, as well as the chemical and biological processes capable of starting and sustaining life.

“By bringing together chemists, geologists, biologists, and astrophysicists to work creatively together toward a common goal, the Initiative will ensure we truly exploit the full potential of this exciting new field of research, bringing us closer to understanding life in the Universe and finding life beyond Earth,” said Queloz.

The School of the Physical Sciences and its various departments (Cavendish Laboratory, Chemistry, Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Earth Sciences and the Institute of Astronomy) recently committed to an initial funding package that will support the Initiative as it builds the foundations of its vision and will create the conditions for its research and educational ambitions to grow and develop.

Professor Nigel Peake, head of the School of the Physical Sciences, said: “During the last decades our understanding of the microbiology of life has made spectacular progress, but knowledge on origins of life on Earth, and more generally in the Universe, are still nascent. 

“This is about to change. I am proud that Cambridge is leading the way to a radically new approach based on a convergence of recent results in astrophysics, planetology and molecular chemistry.

“With the Cambridge Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe, we will provide the infrastructure that will allow scholars from various disciplines to combine their interests to address the fundamental question of our origins in the Universe. This sets the scene for a revolution to come.”

• To follow the Cambridge Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe, visit www.iplu.phy.cam.ac.uk

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