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Scientists launch new initiative to look for extraterrestrial life

Scientists at four of the world’s leading universities have teamed up to investigate the origins of life on Earth — and look for similar biological processes taking place elsewhere in the universe.

The universities of Cambridge in the UK, Harvard and Chicago in the US and ETH Zürich in Switzerland announced the formation of what they called the Origins Federation on Saturday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington.

“I believe that life is embedded into the laws of physics of the universe,” said Didier Queloz, a leader of the initiative, who has dual appointments at Cambridge and ETH. He was a co-discoverer of the first known exoplanet — a planet orbiting a star other than our sun — in the 1990s.

The longstanding search for extraterrestrial life — whether simple microbes or advanced civilisations — will be supercharged by new interplanetary missions to Mars and Jupiter’s moons and by observatories such as the James Webb telescope, the founding scientists said. Complementary research will focus on the still mysterious emergence of life on Earth itself.

“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” said Queloz. Scientists have identified more than 5,000 exoplanets and they believe that billions exist in the Milky Way galaxy alone.

“The discovery of many different planets is the big game changer,” said Queloz. “We have found a huge diversity of planetary systems and a lot of them are quite different from the solar system.”

His Cambridge colleague Emily Mitchell, an evolutionary biologist, believes that simple life will be widespread across our galaxy, judging from the speed with which microbes emerged on the young Earth around 4bn years ago.

Mitchell’s lab is looking for clues about extraterrestrial life from the early biochemical evolution of the first microbes on Earth. “As we begin to investigate other planets,” she said, “biosignatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth are just a happy accident or part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological and ecological complexities.”

But the discovery of extraterrestrial life would probably not be a single clear-cut event. “A life detection announcement is unlikely to be from a single piece of data,” said Heather Graham, an astrobiologist at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Centre.

“If we get a really cool result from a Mars rover or from a telescope, we’ll need to look in another way to confirm it. We have started to think about life detection and bio signature detection as being suites of data rather than singular pieces of data.”

Kate Adamala at the University of Minnesota is investigating the origins of life by making simple synthetic cells in her lab. “Chemistry is itching to make life but to make intelligent life is much more difficult,” she said.

“And then staying alive as an intelligent life form might be really challenging.” Extraterrestrial civilisations might tend to destroy themselves with their advanced technologies, she suggested.

Queloz agreed that, although simple life probably pervades the universe, high-tech civilisations might be extremely rare. “As you get more knowledge, it becomes easier to destroy yourself. Maybe there is a kind of doomsday waiting for us,” he said.

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