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Canadian researchers use new ‘planet simulator’ to probe origins of life

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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 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 new Origins of Life Lab, 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.

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 $400,000 from a federal research infrastructure program called the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

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 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.

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)

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 — 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 look like.

It also allows them to mimic conditions that have never been seen on Earth, said Ralph Pudritz, an astrophysics professor and director of the the university’s Origins Institute, which built the new lab.

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 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.



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