A Challenge to Find Life's Origin
In his search for a winning hypothesis, Harry Lonsdale has focused on proposals that cogently address the chemistry of "," an area of research where he said he and his panel of peer reviewers are most knowledgeable.
He told me that -- per the industry practice -- he's been "sworn to secrecy" not to disclose the names of the reviewers, "the pros," as he calls them, later remembering that he'd already revealed three of the names to an online magazine.
Not everyone is satisfied with the medieval lack of transparency that still shrouds peer review or with angling of the prize toward Darwinian science, which is now being marginalized by a growing number of responsible scientists. Still, Lonsdale is going where few but NASA have gone before in funding origin of life research, and once again, he is being applauded as a champion.
Origin of life investigation is one of those areas of research where amateurs and credentialled scientists are on somewhat equal footing, since the terrain is still so fresh. But were any amateurs among Lonsdale's top finishers? What will private money thrown into the mix do that public money has not been able to? And is Lonsdale's political savvy enough to deal with the politics of evolutionary science?
Harry Lonsdale holds a BS degree in chemistry from Rutgers University and a PhD in chemistry from Penn State. He is the author of the book Running: Politics, Power and the Press and of more than 100 scientific papers and various patents as well as being founding editor of the Journal of Membrane Science.
Harry Lonsdale's is a rags-to-riches story. He was brought up on a chicken farm in New Jersey. His mother was a Sicilian immigrant and his Welsh father orphaned on the doorstep at age two.
Lonsdale served in the Air Force after college then worked as a research scientist in industry, at General Atomics Co. and Alza Corp. He was also a visiting scientist in Germany and Israel.
I recently spoke with Harry Lonsdale by phone. He sounds decades younger than 80, and his enthusiasm regarding origin of life is boundless. Our interview follows.
Suzan Mazur: Now that you're living in California, I'm curious if you might be thinking about another run for public office some time soon.
Suzan Mazur: You sound gregarious.
Suzan Mazur: Why did you leave Oregon for California?
Suzan Mazur: And now you're championing an investigation into the origin of life... Many think prebiotic evolution is too speculative to be discussed seriously, including University of Chicago microbiologist James Shapiro, who I recently interviewed on this page. Others like the 1,000 or so researchers in the NASA astrobiology program no doubt disagree. By your private funding of the Origin of Life Challenge, what do you hope to discover regarding origin of life that public funding has not been able to?
I'd like to note here your definition of life, which is, "a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution."
Suzan Mazur: But whose definition is the one I just quoted, which is on your Origin of Life website?
["What were the nature and genesis of the first macromolecules on the prebiotic earth?
How did the building blocks that comprise these macromolecules become available and how were they assembled?
How did prebiotic molecules first acquire the capacity for storing genetic informaiton and how did the genetic machinery evolve?
At what stage in the origin of life did cells originate, and what did they contain?
How did those primitive cells evolve to modern biological cells?
What was the chemistry of the first metabolic pathway(s) and how did that metabolism evolve to modern cellular metabolism?
At what stage did proteins become involved in metabolic processes and how did the link first arise between genetic molecules and other functional molecules, such as enzymes?"]
Suzan Mazur: The National Academy of Sciences has urged the US government to endow incentive prizes of tens of millions of dollars. Do you agree that more philanthropists should step forward to fund origin of life investigations even though how life began could for some time remain a "guess," as David Deamer, who heads ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life and Astrobiology), characterized his own view of the subject in a conversation with me.
Harry Lonsdale: Yes I do agree that more philanthropists should step forward to fund origin of life investigatons. I'll elaborate, but let me first back up. You asked me why I'm doing this in view of the fact that there's already some NASA support for it. The people I've talked with, in fact the people I've made grants to, all say money in this field is extremely hard to come by.
You might think the National Science Foundation would have a great interest in this. But they don't. Their funding of origin of life research is minimal. They're funding a group at Georgia Tech -- a man named Nicholas Hud has funding there -- but beyond that I think there's almost nothing.
Origin of life is one of the greatest unknowns we still have in science.. Five hundred years ago most of how the world and Universe worked was a mystery. Now many of those mysteries have been solved. Three of the great remaining mysteries are: (1) origin of the Universe, which we may never solve; (2) origin of life, which is a huge problem in my opinion; and (3) how the brain works.
Origin of life is largely underfunded. And there's almost no international funding. One of my prizewinners is a Canadian-US team -- which I'm not going to name right now -- and they told me there's no money for cross-border research. That is sad. There's a lot of money in this country, there are a hundred or more billionaires.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffet put together The Giving Pledge three or four years ago. They signed up about 70 people, all of them centi-millionaires and up, who have agreed to give away most of their wealth for worthwhile causes. Most of the money is going to hospital extensions and scholarship for students. Great stuff -- but that's not unveiling any of the great remaining mysteries. Some of those funds should be channeled to scientific endeavors.
Ninety percent of the dough for origin of life research in the US comes from NASA. As a result these researchers funded through NASA bring to their work the idea that life, or pieces of life, came from outer space. And it may have. But I don't think there's any evidence that pieces of life could not have been produced here on Earth. Yet there's a bias in US origin of life research toward the extraterrestrial -- space stuff, meteorites. I'm not sure such an emphasis is essential to discovering how life began on planet Earth. It's certainly not part of my thinking.
Suzan Mazur: Bruce Runnegar, the former NASA Astrobiology Institute chief who's now a professor of paleontology at UCLA, seems to agree with you. He told me regarding origin of life research that "investigations and experiments are relatively inexpensive on Earth. You can do all this for a few tens of thousands of dollars. But it's a highly different matter if you're going to Mars and spending a billion or two billion dollars returning samples or doing experiments in situ."
Suzan Mazur: Are you currently designing any other prize, science or otherwise?
Harry Lonsdale: I have to say no, Suzan.
Suzan Mazur: Was it racially and ethnically diverse?
Suzan Mazur: And was it a panel of international experts?
Suzan Mazur: Can you tell me who they were?
Suzan Mazur: Is that right?
Suzan Mazur: Were the referees paid?
Suzan Mazur: How did it the selection process work? Did the referees select the winner or winners or did you? And when will we know who won?
On March 30 of this year I met from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon with all the reviewers at a hotel in San Diego. They came from across the US and from Europe. We discussed the top proposals and the reviews they had written beforehand. We all sort of sat around and chewed the fat. I asked a thousand questions. I then chose my favorite three proposals.
The three I picked were three of the four the experts had recommended. So I largely leaned on the reviewers, but ultimately the decisions were mine.
Suzan Mazur: When are you going to announce?
Suzan Mazur: All teams. A dozen people or so?
Suzan Mazur: All institutional researchers.
Suzan Mazur: No independent scientists.
Suzan Mazur: Any hints about the content of the winning proposals?
All three winners look at some aspect of how RNA came to be and how it evolved. RNA has catalytic activity like proteins have. But in early life it's thought, again not by me but by the experts, that proteins didn't exist. So what was the catalyst? The thinking is that the catalyst was an RNA molecule called a ribozyme, which is a long strand of RNA. All the work I'm supporting deals with this RNA world -- where RNA came from and how it came to be an early catalyst.
Suzan Mazur: The guidelines for the prize were as follows: "The proposal should take into account the conditions, materials, and energy sources believed to have existed on the prebiotic Earth. Submission should provide a cogent hypothesis for how life first arose, including its plausible chemistry, and for how primitive life could have evolved to modern biological cells, including the present genetic material and metabolism." Your PhD is in chemistry and your undergraduate degree also.
Suzan Mazur: How deeply involved in origin of life science are you? And in designing guidelines for the prize, do you think that you and your advisors underplayed the importance of physical processes in prebiotic evolution? I'm thinking about, say the work of Duke University mechanical engineer and constructal theorist Adrian Bejan and his investigation of river basins and pre-biotic flow systems, etc., where the line between animate and inanimate is blurred and life is viewed as an organized flow of matter, electricity, heat, etc.
Suzan Mazur: Is it because your background is in chemistry that you were more interested in proposals based on chemical approaches to origin of life?
Suzan Mazur: But did you get proposals along those lines?
Suzan Mazur: Chris McKay once told me the following: "The Darwinian paradigm breaks down in two obvious ways. First, and most clear, Darwinian selection cannot be responsible for the origin of life. Secondly, there is some thought that Darwinian selection cannot fully explain the rise of complexity at the molecular level. . . . It can't be Darwinian all the way down. . . . Darwinian selection only works when there's software. And everything that's prebiotic is hardware." Again, "life" has been defined on the Origin of Life Challenge website as "a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution." My question is that by steering your prizewinning search for the origin of life in the direction of Darwinian science, which is now being seriously marginalized in light of the "evo-devo revolution" -- as Noam Chomsky put it -- and the evolution paradigm shift, with some of our most esteemed scientists declaring neo-Darwinism dead -- the accumulation of genetic mutations being enough to change one species to another having not been validated in the literature -- are you concerned that you and your panel may have angled the prize in the direction of false hypotheses?
We were hoping people might submit proposals covering the gamut, from first life to modern life. No proposals attempted to do that. It's too big a question right now. It's 2012 -- let's wait until 2025. Maybe by then people will have put the whole puzzle together, but right now we're looking at pieces, or pieces of pieces, of this puzzle.
Suzan Mazur: What I'm questioning is the angling of the prize to Darwinian science which is now being marginalized.
Suzan Mazur: I asked Dave Deamer if life had a beginning or is it just part of a process inherent to the Universe. And he said, "It's part of a process." I also asked him if evolution started when the Universe was born. His response was "It depends on what you want to call evolution."
Suzan Mazur: Life has been on earth for nearly 4 billion years, how urgent would you say it is that we now find the answer to the great mystery of who we are and where we came from?