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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Origins Institute Explores the Origin of Life, the Universe, and Everything


Where did we come from?

It’s something humans have always wondered, and scientists in northeast Ohio are tackling that and other big questions such as: How did the planets form? How did the universe begin?

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair explores the wide-ranging science of origins.

Nita Sahai is an origins scientist. Technically she's a geochemist in the department of polymer science  at the University of Akron, but her focus is on figuring out how life began on earth.

Dr. Nita Sahai, right, and her post-doc researcher Dr. Punam Dalai study the interplay of geology and early life at the University of Akron.

In her lab, Sahai is testing mixtures of simple compounds that she believes were present 3.5 billion years ago when life first appeared here -- and seeing how they react.

Sahai flips through pictures of the protocells she's creating in her lab.

Life, she thinks, began in the mud.

“You can see here the minerals that are in contact with the vesicles," says Sahai, pointing to images of fuzzy circles nuzzling dark stripes,"this is one particular kind of mineral – little sheets of clay minerals edge on.”

Sahai has found that certain types of clay facilitate the formation of simple cells and help the chemicals necessary for life bind together.

She’s tested a range of rock types and environmental conditions to create a roadmap for where life could exist.

The thing about scientists is that we're super stubborn, so every time that an experiment doesn't work, that's good, because then we have one less thing to check.

“Tell me what minerals you have on Mars or tell me what minerals you might have on some moon of Saturn," says Sahai, "and I can tell you what rate of proto-cell assembly might have been.”

While Sahai explores the mingling of geology and biology, other origins scientists are looking at the mechanisms of early metabolism and how life came to be self-replicating.

Origins Institute asks big questions
These are among the fundamental questions in science, says Glenn Starkman, director of the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

As an astrophysicist and cosmologist, he says he's interested in the origins of everything, "the origin of the universe, the origin of structure in the universe. I’m very interested in the nature of dark matter, how galaxies grow.”

Cosmologist Dr. Glenn Starkman, left, is director of the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Patricia Princehouse is an evolutionary biologist and outreach coordinator for the institute. The program offers the first origins undergraduate degree in U.S.

From the Big Bang to the birth of humankind, Starkman says origins research draws on all branches of science.

“And so we need to be training people who are willing and able to think across physics, chemistry, biology.” 

Case Western Reserve University is the first school in the U.S., and one of only two in the world, to offer an origins undergraduate degree.

Students are immersed in science and math and work on research projects with one of the more than 100 Origins Institute fellows.

Evolutionary biologist Patricia Princehouse is outreach coordinator for the Origins Institute.

She says part of the mission of the institute is “to bring people together on issues that aren’t addressed in particular disciplines.”

Collaborators include experts in physics, medicine, anthropology, engineering, astronomy, biology and math from a half dozen institutions in Ohio.

Searching for space rocks on the South Pole
Origins fellow Ralph Harvey teaches geology at Case and is head of the U.S. Antarctic Search for Meteorites program.

The snow plains of Antarctica holds treasures for meteorite hunters.

His passion is finding chondritic meteorites, or rocks from space, in the frozen wastes of the South Pole.

“If you think science is about figuring where things came from," says Harvey, "chondritic meteorites. You can’t really go any further back than that.”

The meteorites hold clues to the earth’s origin 4.5 billion years ago.

“They seem to represent some of the very earliest building blocks out of which the solar system and the planets where built,” says Harvey.

He says Earth in its early days was hit by enough water-bearing meteorites and snowball-like comets to fill the oceans. 

And with that water, Harvey says, space provided the complex molecules needed for life.

“It’s clearly a reservoir in our solar system where one can get the building blocks of biological activity.”

Science is stubborn
At the University of Akron, Origins Institute fellow Nita Sahai says that primordial soup simmered for around 700 million years before something clicked.

“It took a lot of time to get these molecules together to form the earliest life that we know of,” says Sahai.

Mud may have been the birthplace of life on earth. Researchers are working on understanding the chemical processes that made it possible. Minerals may have served as the first catalysts for life's reactions.

Sahai says it could be another hundred years before scientists crack the mystery of the origin of life, the universe, and everything, but she says, that’s OK.

“The thing about scientists is that we’re super stubborn. So every time that an experiment doesn’t work, that’s good, because then we have one less thing to check.”

From particle physics to plate tectonics nearly every branch of science has something to contribute to the question of how the world and everything else came to be.