New center to investigate the origin of life

Everywhere they look, astronomers find planets. Now they are looking to join forces with biologists, chemists and geologists. Together we would like to answer one of the great questions of mankind.

This team will lead the new Center for Origin and Prevalence of Life at ETH Zurich: Roland Riek, Didier Queloz, Cara Magnabosco, Sascha Quanz (from left to right).

Marco Rosasco / ETH

A new interdisciplinary research center was opened at ETH Zurich on Friday. In the coming years, forty professors from five departments will investigate how life could have originated on Earth and whether there is life on other planets. The new center is called the Center for Origin and Prevalence of Life and is headed by Geneva Nobel Prize winner Didier Queloz.

A Nobel Prize winner comes to ETH Zurich

With Queloz, ETH Zurich was able to attract the researcher to Zurich who, as a young astronomer, had initiated this new field of research. In 1995, together with his supervisor Michel Mayor, he discovered the first planet orbiting a star other than the sun. More than 5,000 extrasolar planets are now known, and the question of whether our solar system is a unique freak of nature has long been settled.

Research is at a different point today. Most of the planets found in recent years orbit stars that only remotely resemble the Sun. Even if these planets are similar in size to Earth and orbit the right distance from their parent star, that does not mean that they have similar conditions. For example, many stars are prone to violent outbursts of radiation that can erode a planet’s atmosphere. The question therefore arises as to whether such planets could still be inhabited and whether life there is also dependent on water and carbon compounds.

These are questions that astronomers cannot answer alone. Whether life can develop on a planet depends not only on physical parameters such as size or temperature. Equally important is the chemistry of the planet’s atmosphere, the composition of the planet’s interior, whether it has plate tectonics, and whether the environmental conditions are such that the building blocks of life can bond together. What is needed here is the specialist knowledge of biologists, chemists and earth scientists.

A few years ago, Switzerland did not have this interdisciplinary environment to offer. That was one of the reasons Queloz accepted an offer from Cambridge University in 2013. There he found what he missed in Switzerland. But he always felt the desire to give something back to Switzerland, he said three years ago in an interview with the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”.

The opportunity arose two years ago. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the newly crowned Nobel Prize winner met the new President of ETH Zurich, Joël Mesot. Queloz was able to sell Mesot the idea of ​​exploring the origin of life in all its facets.

Five departments under one roof

Two years later, the new research and teaching center celebrates its opening. It includes forty research groups from the departments of physics, chemistry, biology, earth sciences and environmental systems sciences. This means that five of the sixteen ETH departments are involved. In addition to Queloz, the executive committee includes the geobiologist Cara Magnabosco, the chemist Roland Riek and the astrophysicist Sascha Quanz. The management team is advised by a Science Steering Committee, which includes representatives from all five departments.

As before, the research groups will be financed from the ETH Zurich budget. In addition, the center will receive nine million Swiss francs over the next six years. One third of this money comes from the Nomis Foundation, one third from the budget of the ETH President and one third from the institutes involved, which pay a kind of membership fee.

Among other things, this money is intended to finance a fellowship program that attracts young talent from all over the world to ETH Zurich. Up to six new professorships are to be created at a later date. However, the money for this has yet to be raised. It is planned that the center will remain in existence for at least ten years. If it is a success, it could later be integrated into the organizational structure of ETH Zurich, said Mesot at the opening of the center.

Queloz emphasized how important it is that interdisciplinarity is lived out in the new center. It is not the idea that the scientists involved should simply continue as before. You want to achieve that with gentle pressure. There will be incentives to submit joint projects. The fellowship program also fulfills a bridging function. The new fellows will report to two research groups.

At the press conference, Mesot recalled the value of basic research for our society. Without them, many things would not exist today. He explicitly mentioned magnetic resonance imaging and artificial intelligence. Scientific breakthroughs are often made at the interface between two disciplines. That is why the new center is so important for ETH Zurich.

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