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Millions to Chase a Myth

Would you put millions of dollars on a quest that has proved fruitless for 150 years?

Harry Lonsdale, a retired chemist and entrepreneur, did. Last year, he launched the "Origin of Life Challenge" and called on scientists to propose explanations for how life came from non-life, promising them rich rewards for finding answers to "this puzzling question."

According to NASA's Astrobiology Magazine, evolutionary scientists eagerly responded with 76 proposals. Lonsdale's review committee has narrowed it down to three winners. "I'm prepared to spend $2 million over the next five to seven year period," he said.

If it sounds strange to find someone attempting to kick-start this kind of research, maybe that's because you were taught to believe that Stanley Miller had it all wrapped up fifty years ago with his famous spark-discharge experiment, one of the Icons of Evolution that adorns high-school science textbooks. It is indeed surprising to read now the frank admission that "How life first developed is a poorly-understood process."

It's so poorly understood that one of Lonsdale's referees, astrobiologist Chris McKay from NASA's Ames Research Center, commented, "The scientific study of the origin of life is still early enough that there's not even a consensus on how to approach the problem." What? Didn't Darwin propose a warm little pond? Didn't Oparin propose coacervates? Didn't Miller propose spark discharges? Didn't Sidney Fox propose microspheres? Didn't Gilbert propose an RNA World?

Is reporter Nola Taylor Redd really telling us that 150 years of work has not produced a consensus on how even to approach the problem? Shocking.

Actually, there is a bit of a quasi-consensus. "Though not the expressed intention, all three proposals wound up examining some aspect of the RNA world," she said. "RNA is thought to be the precursor to DNA, at one time not only carrying genetic information but also acting as a catalyst." Note to perceptive readers: whenever you see the phrase, "is thought," you should ask your friends, "Who thought that? I didn't think that. Did you think that?" The passive voice pacifies a lot of begged questions.

We wish Lonsdale and his researchers luck. They will need it. There can be no natural selection without reproduction, the teams all realize. "If life started as RNA world, somewhere, somehow, the molecules making up RNA had to be reproduced." So if natural selection is out, what remains? Sheer dumb luck, as David Berlinski would say.

Redd revealed a little inside secret: NASA has a bias.

Most of the funding for research in the United States on the origin of life comes from NASA, which Lonsdale says may lead to a bias that life began off-planet. There are very little international or multinational opportunities.

According to McKay, private funding allows scientists to do things that "don't fit the mold so readily," with the potential to look at research "off the beaten track."

"Private funding could bring innovation that may be harder to find in public funding."

This little trade secret (that private funding is rare) might tip off savvy investors that the "Origin of Life Challenge" is a bad bet. Of course, Lonsdale is free to do whatever he wants with his own money. No doubt the alchemists of the 16th century would have eagerly accepted private funding from a rich baron. But when researchers are still at square one after 150 years, outsiders might be justified in considering more promising ways to get a return on investment.

Actually, today's origin-of-life researchers are behind square one if they don't even have a consensus on how to approach the problem.

Like alchemists, astrobiologists can always come up with a reason why they need more money and more time. "Figuring out how life first started may seem like it should be simple -- after all, life is everywhere on Earth," Redd said, offering a classic non-sequitur as she eased into a rationalization. "But the search is really far more complicated." Then comes the inevitable litany of excuses:

For one thing, scientists can't actually work backward. McKay explained that Darwinian evolution, the dominant process on the planet, involves self-replication, a process only found in living things, and thus can't be responsible for the original creation of life.

The other problem is that life itself has destroyed the evidence. As the planet has evolved over the years, living creatures have significantly changed their environments.

The confession that origin-of-life research has no evidence might send the investors packing, but McKay inserted a little humor to get their attention back: "What led to life has been lost in the long stretch of eons," he said. "It's been trampled on by small animals and children." That's right; the dog ate our evidence. My kid trampled it in the mud.

The smart money is on biomimetics, a hot new trend built on intelligent design principles, assuming, as it does, that nature's designs are so good they are worth imitating. If any investors want to send even a small portion of Lonsdale's promised funding to support biomimetics projects or intelligent design organizations, such as Biologic Institute, Discovery Institute or Illustra Media, they can rest assured it won't take 150 years to show some returns.