The origin of life is one of the oldest questions that mankind has, but surprisingly little advance has been made in this field. We still do not know where we come from, nor do we know where we are heading to. However, due to recent developments in biology, physics, chemistry and astronomy, we now start to grasp some of the aspects of the Origin of Life question.

In this programme we will mount a concerted effort by scientists from a wide range of disciplines to tackle the problems associated with this large question and we aim to make big steps ahead in elucidating our origin. We do this in the framework of four interconnected challenges, broadly defined below, in which we will jointly approach relevant sub-questions. The proximity in time and space of the programme and the labs in the Netherlands and the many linkages between the challenges and research groups ensure timely and constructive advances.

Embedding in the Dutch National Science Agenda

The Dutch government has recently (2016) selected the question of the origin of life as a key research area and part of the “Dutch Science Agenda”. This agenda is driven by questions which were submitted by the general public in an open call. A variety of questions focused on subjects like the origin of life, the coevolution of life and planet Earth, the emergence, development and ‘engineerability’ of life’s defining properties, and the distribution of life across the universe. In response to these questions, a consortium of Dutch scientists founded in 2017 the national Origins Center and proposed an initial research programme related to these ‘origins of life’ questions. The Dutch research funding agency NWO considered this proposal ‘excellent’, the consortium ‘of high repute’ and the long-term research objectives ‘ambitious and highly relevant’.

The national Origins Center, which is a virtual centre, harbours scientists from diverse disciplines at universities and institutes across the Netherlands. The researchers of oLife are intimately involved in the Origins Center and the fellowship programme targets largely the same long-term challenges. This embedding ensures that the oLife research fellows will be provided with many opportunities for synergistic work with the Origins Center’s research community, which currently consists of about 300 senior researchers across 21 universities and research institutes in the Netherlands.

Within the Origin’s Center, the oLife participating institutes have an excellent position, hosting outstanding research teams in astronomy and astrophysics, (bio)physics, (bio)chemistry, systems biology, evolutionary biology, and ecology. Most advisors are recipients of prestigious personal grants (Nobel Prize, ERC, Spinoza and/or Veni/Vidi/Vici). oLife thus has the excellent scientists to lead research in the exciting field of life’s origins, evolution, and its distribution across the universe.

Research objectives of the oLife Fellowship Programme

oLife focuses on the origin and evolution of life on Earth and its distribution in the universe. While sub-questions of this research endeavour have been addressed previously, we will now approach this issue in an integrated manner. In a truly cross-disciplinary effort we bridge the borders of research fields in astronomy, biology, chemistry and physics (including computational sciences), which are all essential to come to an overarching view on the origins question. We realize that only by performing joint research between scientific domains that lack a tradition of interaction, we will be able to make the next and ground-breaking steps. To tackle the challenging questions about the origins and evolution of life, we have defined the following Scientific Research Areas:

  • I. Planetary preconditions and boundary conditions of Life, and its origins here on Earth
  • II. Defining properties and synthesis of Life, from the molecular to the biosphere level
  • III. Modelling, predicting and steering of Life
  • IV. Distribution of Life across the universe