Research Center A Hub For Origins of Life Studies

Biogeochemist Yuichiro Ueno in his lab at ELSI built the instrument (to his right) to further his research. Photo: Nerissa Escanlar

Research into the origin of life on Earth is notoriously difficult. The field has produced many new insights into how specific chemical building blocks form and the way an organism’s basic architecture is constructed.

But putting together some of the pieces of the puzzle has not led to any breakthrough moment when the process could be described as understood. As a sign of how far away that moment is likely to be, there isn’t even any real consensus view on how to define life.

Despite this sobering reality — or perhaps because of it — a new center for the study of early Earth and the origin of life was formed several years ago with the goal of approaching the issue in new ways.

The sponsor of this substantial effort is the government of Japan and its World Premier International Research Center Initiative (WPI.) In late 2012, the government committed $100 million over 10 years to build and fund an institute that would not only tackle the fundamental questions of life, but would approach it in a way intentionally divergent from how science is conducted in Japan.

The institute would recruit and hire dozens of researchers from Japan and abroad (the most interest has come from American, French and British researchers) representing a broad range of disciplines, and would make English the common language of all the institute’s endeavors.

Four years into the effort, the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology (ELSI) is now a significant international center for origins of life study. It has attracted many early career, and some senior researchers to its inviting new building on the campus of Tokyo Institute of Technology.

Kei Hirose is the director of ELSI and an expert in the field of deep Earth dynamics and materials with some important discoveries to his name. The overall focus of the institute, he said, is the early Earth’s transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, or from a world of rock and atmosphere and water to one that included biology.

“We strongly hold that progress in understanding the origin of life requires close collaboration between geoscientists and bioscientists,” he said. “There are lots of scenarios about how life might have emerged — the RNA world, metabolism first, hydrothermal vents — but for us they have to link life and the environment to be at all persuasive.”

ELSI Director Kei Hirose and Councilor Piet Hut founded ELSi with funds from the government of Japan. Photo: Nerissa Escanlar

The Agora

The heart of an origins of life institute is inevitably in its labs, but ELSI also has its “Agora,” named after the central gathering place in early Greek city-states. A large, clean-lined hall with comfortable chairs, chalkboards covering many walls and engaged scientists often grouped around them, it is where the unscripted but…

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