As scientists survey the universe for signs of extraterrestrial life, they also seek to understand how life on our planet originated. To Dr. Karin Öberg, founder of Harvard’s Öberg Astrochemistry Lab, the two questions are inextricably intertwined. Öberg’s research looks to space, especially the formation of new planets, for clues as to how life on Earth began, as well as for insight into how best to search for life elsewhere in the universe.
The building blocks for the origin of life
While we currently only know life to exist on Earth, the building blocks for life are abundant in space. Most scientists, Dr. Öberg included, agree on some key ingredients without which life is unlikely to form: liquid water, which is essential to many biological processes; and certain organic molecules, especially nitriles, which contain a highly reactive bond between carbon and nitrogen. When nitriles are present along with sulfur-containing compounds in liquid water, they react to form an array of chemicals that are fundamental to Earth-like life.
The discovery of both liquid water and nitriles on another planet would be momentous for scientists hoping to learn about the origin of life. Such a direct inspection is not currently possible. However, scientists like those in Öberg’s lab are able to analyze discs of pre-planetary material orbiting stars to uncover nitriles and other organic compounds. By determining the likelihood of a newborn planet to contain the elements believed to be necessary for life, Dr. Öberg and fellow researchers can refine their search for the places where life may be forming now.
How did life originate?
Öberg is hopeful that further exploration will reveal how life arises from these basic foundations, and that this will teach us more about where life fits into the natural order of the universe.
“If it turns out, as I think it will be, that this was a natural process, then there is something really exciting going on” in the laws of the universe, Dr. Öberg postulates.
As physics naturally gives rise to chemistry, the process by which life develops may demonstrate that chemistry in turn gives rise to biology— in other words, that life is coded into the framework of our universe. “The whole universe has a story built into it,” Öberg believes. Her research aims to provide answers.