NASA Funds New Origin Of Life Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

TROY, N.Y. -- A NASA grant of nearly $4 million has created a center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for the study of the origin of life. Two other universities in New York's Capital Region will participate in the newly funded research partnership.

Totaling $949,490 per year for four years, the grant has established the NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training (NSCORT) for the Study of the Origins of Life, said Rensselaer's James Ferris, professor of chemistry, who will direct the new program.

"The center will carry out interdisciplinary investigation of the origin and early evolution of life, starting with stardust and the organic molecules formed in interstellar space, all the way to the reactions of the organics that led to the formation of life on Earth," Ferris said.

For example, research at the new center will explore the two popular but differing hypotheses concerning the origin of organic compounds that formed the building blocks of life. One hypothesis proposes that organic compounds were delivered to Earth after having been formed in interstellar clouds and modified in the nebula that became our sun and our solar system.

An alternative view claims that the building blocks of life on Earth were formed here by the action of various energy sources on the atmosphere that emerged from volcanic emissions early in Earth's evolution.

"The interdisciplinary team we have to tackle these questions is truly outstanding," said Ferris.

Ferris, an authority on how life may have had its beginnings in early chemical processes, has produced RNA polymers in the laboratory under conditions that may have existed on primordial Earth. He is the past president of the International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life (ISSOL) and is the editor of the journal Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere. In 1996, Ferris was awarded the Oparin Medal from the ISSOL for "the best sustained scientific research program in the origin of life

Contact: James Ferris
(518) 276-8493
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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