Science

Canadian researchers use new 'planet simulator' to probe origins of life

Where else in the universe could life arise the way it did on Earth? Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton are running experiments in their new “planet simulator” to find that out, along with answers about the origins of the first life on our own planet.

'Life is probably a relatively frequent process in the universe' new experiments suggests

Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton are running experiments in their new 'planet simulator' to find where else in the universe could life arise. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Where else in the universe could life arise the way it did on Earth? Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton are running experiments in their new "planet simulator" to find that out, along with answers about the origins of the first life on our own planet.

"The fundamental question that everyone is probably asking is are we alone in the universe?" said Maikel Rheinstadter, a physics professor and director of the university's new Origins of Life Lab. "And from the first experiments that we have done over summer, it seems that the formation of life is probably a relatively frequent process in the universe."

Those experiments, run in the university's lab — which is affiliated of the Origins Institute — seek to find conditions that will cause chemical ingredients to assemble themselves into simple "proto-cells" — precursors to the cells that make up living things like us.

Maikel Rheinstadter, a physics professor and director of McMaster University's new Origins of Life Lab, says that based on the results of experiments run in the lab so far, 'it seems that the formation of life is probably a relatively frequent process in the universe.' (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Rheinstadter won't talk about the results, as they still need lots of retesting and haven't yet been peer reviewed or published. The researchers hope that will happen in the coming months.

But this week, they did offer tours of the new lab to journalists, recently built with $1 million in funding from a federal research infrastructure program called the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario government and McMaster University.

The lab's experiments are based on one popular theory that life started in warm ponds on the surface of the Earth around four billion years ago from ingredients brought to Earth from space by showers of meteorites.

Those ingredients include:

  • Fats to form the walls of cells.
  • Nucleotides, the building blocks of genetic material like DNA and RNA.
  • Minerals in clay, rocks or sand.

Since July, Renée-Claude Bider, an undergraduate research student, has been mixing up those ingredients in droplets of water and putting them into the planet simulator.

"We're essentially miniaturizing the ponds that we think life started in," she explained.

The simulator looks nothing like a planet — it's a hangar-shaped metal chamber big enough to fit one loaf of bread.

It allows researchers to expose their ingredients to different kinds of weather, and, in particular, changes between wet and dry weather — from rain and snow, to hot and dry conditions -- to see what might cause the ingredients to spontaneously form structures similar to what scientists think the first cells looked like.

On this chip, ingredients such as fats and the building blocks of genetic material are mixed in a droplet of water, to mimic the ponds on ancient Earth where researchers think life began. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

It also allows them to mimic conditions that have never been seen on Earth, said Ralph Pudritz, an astrophysics professor and co-principal investigator.

For example, the planet simulator can be adjusted to expose samples to the type of light that would shine on planets orbiting a red dwarf stars, which are much smaller and cooler — but much more common in our galaxy — than the sun.

"We can literally dial up a star," Pudritz said.

In the coming years, the researchers — which includes co-principal investigator and biochemistry professor Yingfu Li — hope to nail down what range of conditions, on Earth or elsewhere, can form protocells, and ultimately chains of genetic material that can self-replicate — a key characteristic of life.

Co-principal investigator Ralph Pudritz sits in front of the planet simulator, the centrepiece of the institute's new Origins of Life lab. The unique device can simulate light and weather conditions on the early Earth and on other planets. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the Origins of Life Lab was built with $400,000 from the Canada Foundation of Innovation. In fact, the funding also included $600,000 from the Ontario government and McMaster University, for a total of $1 million. It also said that Ralph Pudritz is the director of the Origins Institute. In fact, Pudritz was founding director of the institute and served as director from 2004-15.
    Oct 05, 2018 9:01 PM ET

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