Hydrothermic vents, NOAA

For nearly a century, scientists from a diverse set of fields have been captured by questions about the origins of life. How did life, in all of its complexity, arise from comparatively simple matter?

The topic represents a major scientific challenge because of the requirement for synthetic knowledge from fields spanning basic physics and chemistry, geochemistry, planetary sciences, biochemistry, evolutionary theory, and paleobiology. Progress in addressing the underlying question requires not just that these fields participate, but that there are deep and meaningful exchanges of pertinent facts, concepts, and perspectives.

While the proposals of the last 50 years of origins of life research have been enlightening, they have also sparked deep debates, and there is a continuing need for the community to engage in constructive discourse across disciplinary boundaries.

Our Research Coordination Network (RCN) for Exploration of Life's Origins aims to synthesize past knowledge while integrating novel perspectives from disparate and new fields. We are at a unique point in the biological, chemical, and geophysical sciences where many high-throughput methods, massive computational power, and exceptional instrument sensitivity are allowing us to explore large spaces of possibilities with ever-higher resolution and precision. Yet there is an existing need to convince a variety of scientists that the origins of life represents one of the most important ongoing scientific challenges and to bring their expertise to bear on the problem.

Through a series of meetings and a novel online collaboration platform, our RCN connects scientists from diverse fields to discuss the challenges and open questions around the origins of life.

As we work to advance our scientific understanding of how life could emerge from a non-living system, we are also working to develop an outreach and education strategy to engage undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees, and the general public with this fundamental question. This outreach strategy will involve a novel Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), educational and career materials within the Origins online platform, expansion of the network through early career scientists and trainees, and connection with InterPlanetary, a public-facing science festival.

By uniting scientists, scholars, and the general public in a shared exploration of life's origins, we hope to go beyond the known perspectives in origins of life research. Ultimately, we hope to enrich our shared understanding of where we came from — and whether we might one day discover or foster complex life elsewhere beyond our own planet.