Are we alone in the universe? Astronomy supergroup assembles to discover origins of life

WASHINGTON — Is there alien life in the cosmos? It’s a question that has fueled science-fiction for decades, but is still a mystery in real life. Now a new collective of astronomers has been formed to enhance our understanding of life on Earth and potentially beyond. The Origins Federation aims to illuminate the plausible existence of extraterrestrial life.

This federation, featuring scientists from four prestigious institutions, aims to uncover the origins of life by studying the chemical and physical processes of living organisms and identifying conditions on other planets that could support life. Additionally, they hope to pave the way for young scientists to embark on a career in this captivating new field.

A zoology professor at Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe, Dr. Emily Mitchell is making significant strides toward unraveling the enigma of extraterrestrial life. As an ecological time-traveler, she studies fossils of deep-sea organisms that are 580 million years-old to identify the driving forces that shape evolutionary patterns on Earth.

Her research provides a glimpse four billion years into the past when Earth’s early atmosphere, devoid of oxygen and rich in methane, exhibited the first indications of life. She illuminates how life thrives in harsh conditions through continuous evolution, hinting at the possibility of life on other planets throughout the universe.

“As we begin to investigate other planets, through the Mars missions,” Dr. Mitchell says in a media release, “biosignatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth is just a happy accident or part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological and ecological complexities.”

Earth NASA satellite
(Photo by NASA on Unsplash)

Meanwhile, Dr. Kate Adamala, from the University of Minnesota’s Photobiology Lab, conducts exciting research into synthetic cells. By deconstructing complex systems into simpler components, these cells enable scientists to study the past, present, and future of life in the universe. These components assist biochemists in understanding the foundational principles of life and evolution, potentially applicable to other planets.

By integrating engineering principles into biology, Dr. Adamala aims to create simplistic, cell-like bioreactors that resemble life’s earliest forms. Unlike biological cells, synthetic cells can be digitized and transmitted over vast distances, potentially producing on-demand medication or vaccines. This “Astro-pharmacy” could support life on spaceships or future Martian colonies. In the meantime, synthetic cells can contribute to sustainable energy systems, increased crop yields, and biomedical therapies.

The founding of the Origins Federation was announced by Dr. Didier Queloz during the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. The federation consists of researchers from life origins centers and initiatives at Harvard University, ETH Zurich, The University of Chicago, and the University of Cambridge.

“The Origin Federation builds upon a long-standing collegial relationship strengthened through a shared collaboration in a recently completed project with the Simons Foundation,” says Dr. Queloz, who directs ETH Zurich’s Centre for Origin and Prevalence of life and the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe at Cambridge.

He joined forces with chemist and fellow Nobel Laureate Jack Szostk and astronomer Dimitar Sasselov to form this “supergroup.”

astronomy group including From left: Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamala, and Carl Zimmer
From left: Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamala, and Carl Zimmer, a columnist for The New York Times and author of “Life’s Edge: The search for what it means to be alive” who moderated ETH Zurich’s Origins of Life discussion during the AAAS. (Copyright: ETH Zurich)

As a doctoral student, Dr. Queloz was the first to discover an exoplanet – a planet that orbits a solar-type star outside of our solar system. His discovery later earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics. In just one generation, scientists have discovered over 5,000 exoplanets and predict the potential existence of trillions more within the Milky Way galaxy alone.

Each new discovery raises more questions than it answers about life’s emergence on Earth and its potential existence elsewhere in the universe. Technological advancements, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and interplanetary missions to Mars, expedite access to a wealth of new observations and data.

“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” says Dr. Queloz.

Although a comprehensive definition of life is yet to be established, the pursuit of understanding its origins has stirred enthusiasm, fostered new collaborations, and generated excitement within the scientific community.

Humans are already updating their welcome messages for aliens

If there is life on other worlds, it’ll be important for humans to make a great first impression. With that in mind, scientists have created a new international research hub at the University of St Andrews to coordinate global expertise and prepare humanity’s response should we find extraterrestrials.

The new SETI Post-Detection Hub, hosted by the university’s Centre for Exoplanet Science and the Centre for Global Law and Governance, will serve as a coordinating center for efforts to combine a diverse array of expertise across both the sciences and the humanities for planning out impact assessments, protocols, procedures, and treaties — all with one goal in mind: designing a responsible response to alien contact.

Right now, the SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) community has drawn up the only existing agreed upon “contact” protocols for alien life — and those date back to 1989!

“Will we ever get a message from E.T.? We don’t know. We also don’t know when this is going to happen. But we do know that we cannot afford to be ill prepared – scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless – for an event that could turn into reality as early as tomorrow and which we cannot afford to mismanage,” says Dr. John Elliott, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Computer Science of the University of St Andrews, in a university release.

Will aliens really come in peace?

According to a 2021 poll, alien conspiracy theorists are now the alien conspiracy majority! A survey of 2,000 adults in the United Kingdom finds six in 10 now believe it’s only a matter of time before Earth becomes the target of an alien invasion.

However, most respondents are hoping for the best when humans make first contact with alien life. In fact, 63 percent say they’d welcome an alien if they saw one land nearby. Even more fascinating, one in 20 people claim they’ve already seen an extraterrestrial!

South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.

YouTube video


  1. Of course we are not alone. We may even be below 50% on the universal average intelligence scale.

Comments are closed.