In search of the origin of life

In search of the origin of life

A new research centre at ETH Zurich wants to trace the origins of life. Nobel Prize winner Didier Queloz will lead the new Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life with more than 40 different research groups. 

A new interdisciplinary research centre on the origin of life has started work at ETH Zurich. Bringing together 40 different research groups from five departments, working with their counterparts from around the world, it aims to get to the bottom of major questions facing humanity, such as the origin of life on Earth. How did life on Earth begin? How did it develop and proliferate? Is there life on other planets? The founder and director of the Centre for the Origin and Prevalence of Life is astronomer and Swiss Nobel Prize winner Didier Queloz.

First discovery of an exoplanet

Together with his doctoral supervisor Michel Mayor, Queloz discovered the first exoplanet to orbit a sun-like star in 1995: 51 Pegasi, later renamed Helvetios. In the meantime, we know of more than 5,000 extrasolar planets. Didier Queloz also announced the discovery of the most Earth-like exoplanet to date, Kepler-452 b, in July 2015.

Research is ready for the next step

Much more far-reaching insights into the origin and spread of life are hoped to be gained in Zurich with the help of the new centre and an innovative collaboration between different disciplines. The conditions for this have significantly improved in recent years: in various fields of research relevant to this topic there has been rapid progress – in molecular biology, biochemistry and other life sciences – as stated in a press release from ETH Zurich. In astronomy, the findings are also progressing tremendously: currently, the James Webb space telescope is providing an unprecedented view of the structures of the universe, and has already delivered previously unseen discoveries, such as the first evidence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system.

When I visited various ETH Zurich departments after taking up my post four years ago, I realised that many research groups have one thing in common: the great desire to get to the bottom of the origin of life. I am really pleased that our new centre will now make this possible.

ETH Zurich President Joël Mesot

To achieve its scientific ambition, the centre has developed an extensive programme including cutting-​​edge interdisciplinary research projects, the recruitment of outstanding talent, the development of an active scientific networking programme and an interdisciplinary life sciences curriculum. For this purpose, up to six new professorships at ETH Zurich will be established.