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University of Cambridge to launch £10m Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe to explore origins and nature of life



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How did life emerge on Earth? Is the universe full of life? And what is the nature of life?

These questions and more will be tackled by the University of Cambridge’s new Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe, established with a £10million grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

The research centre will bring together an international team of scientists and philosophers, led by Professor Didier Queloz.

Nobel Prize winner Prof Didier Queloz. Picture: University of Cambridge
Nobel Prize winner Prof Didier Queloz. Picture: University of Cambridge

Scientists can now investigate whether the processes that made life possible on Earth are unique in the universe, thanks to simultaneous revolutions in exoplanet discoveries, prebiotic chemistry and solar system exploration.

Prof Queloz, who shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for being the first to discover a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system, said: “The centre will act as a catalyst for the development of our vision to understanding life in the universe through a long-term research programme that will be the driving force for international coordination of research and education.

Researchers from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, Department of Earth Sciences, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Institute of Astronomy, Department of Zoology, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Divinity and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology will be involved, along with international researchers.

The centre will build on the work of the university’s recently launched Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe (IPLU), which enables cross-disciplinary research on planetology and life in the universe.

Over the next 10 years, the centre will focus on four themes:

  • identifying the chemical pathways to the origins of life;
  • characterising the environments on Earth and other planets that could act as the cradle of prebiotic chemistry and life;
  • discovering and characterising habitable exoplanets and signatures of geological and biological evolution; and
  • refining our understanding of life through philosophical and mathematical concepts.

The centre will collaborate with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, University College London, ETH Zurich, Harvard University and the Centre of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.

James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz shared the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Matthew Powner, from University College London, said: “Understanding the reactions that predisposed the first cells to form on Earth is the greatest unsolved mystery in science.

“Critical challenges of increasing complexity must be addressed in this field, but these challenges represent one of the most exciting frontiers in science.”

Carol Cleland, director of the Center for the Study of Origins and professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, another collaborator on the programme, said: “The new centre is unique in the breadth of its interdisciplinarity, bringing together scientists and philosophers to address central questions about the nature and extent of life in the universe.

“Characteristics that scientists currently take as fundamental to life reflect our experience with a single example of life, familiar Earth life.

“These characteristics may represent little more than chemical and physical contingencies unique to the conditions under which life arose on Earth. If this is the case, our concepts for theorising about life will be misleading.

“Philosophers of science are especially well trained to help scientists 'think outside the box' by identifying and exploring the conceptual foundations of contemporary scientific theorising about life with an emphasis on developing strategies for searching for truly novel forms of life on other worlds.”

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