Is life abundant in the Universe?

The Origins of Life Initiative is a community of Harvard faculty, senior researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates fascinated by the challenge of answering this question.

Since the University created this interfaculty initiative in 2007, we have grown to over 150 members. Our team spans the University in Cambridge and in Boston, where researchers at Harvard Medical School and at the Massachusetts General Hospital campuses join forces with their colleagues in the life and physical sciences across the University.

Here is a sampling of the many projects that are underway:

  • Astronomers search for undiscovered planets that may be hospitable to life using special instruments designed by experimental physicists
  • Geochemists analyze sedimentary rocks on Earth and Mars to uncover planetary processes and environmental changes throughout history
  • Chemists and chemical biologists consider the simple molecules on primitive planets and focus on the route to assembling complex self-replicating molecules
  • Molecular biologists concentrate on the ultimate leap -- how biological evolution can emerge from the chemistry on the host planets

Our progress is being accelerated by new people, unencumbered by old misconceptions, and full of fresh ideas. We see that interactions between people in different disciplines, using new methods and instrumentation, and creating a new ‘systems’ approach, are fostering surprising connections between materials and processes previously thought to be unrelated.

"Is it easy or hard for life to emerge from the chemistry of early planets? In the lab, we try to work out a complete, step by step, plausible pathway all the way from simple chemistry to more complex chemistry to simple biology and if we can actually show that there’s a continuous pathway to life with no super hard steps along the way, then we could conclude that it’s likely that there’s abundant life out there..."

Jack Szostak
Alex. A. Rich Distinguished Investigator, Department of Molecular Biology, Harvard Medical School