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Media Advisory 08-015

"Origin of Life" Opens in the National Science Foundation Atrium

New, traveling exhibit highlights current ground-breaking research that is leading to a step-by-step understanding of how life emerged

February 13, 2008

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How did life begin? Can scientists create life in the lab? Will we find life on other planets? A new exhibit just opened in the atrium of the National Science Foundation (NSF) offers some intriguing insights into new theories about life's origin, based on current research at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI).

"Life on Earth is the only life we know. A comprehensive understanding of how the living world has and is shaping our changing planet requires that we address the fundamental question of how life began on Earth." said Chuck Liarakos, senior advisor for strategic planning in NSF's Biology Directorate.

What are the kinds and origins of molecules that participated in the genesis of life? What pathways led from pre-biotic inorganic chemistry and geochemistry to the biochemistry of life?

Scientists know that the earth formed about 4.6 billion years ago. They have strong evidence that life first emerged on earth about 3.8 billion years ago. Learning what the Earth was like when this happened is crucial to understanding how it happened. Evidence shedding light on these "early Earth" conditions comes from many different fields, from astronomy and geology to geochemistry, biochemistry and genetics.

The exhibition is divided into seven self-guided sections: Introduction, Early Earth, Chemical Evolution, Biological Evolution, Origin of Life Theories, SFI Research and What Lies Ahead. It includes video demonstrations and an interactive, computer-based "origin of life" experiment based on the original 1953 Miller-Urey experiment that produced biological molecules from inorganic gases and electricity.

The exhibit grew out of research supported by a multi-institutional NSF Biology Directorate award titled: "From Geochemistry to the Origin of Life." to Dr. Harold Morowitz at SFI, and includes scientists from five other research centers--George Mason University, the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of Illinois, the Carnegie Institute and Arizona State University. Scientific team members are investigating how networks of ordinary chemical reactions may have led to the genetic code used by all living organisms, and the possibility that life evolved not from a single "last universal common ancestor" but from a group of ancestral organisms that freely swapped genes.

"Emergence: A New View of Life's Origin" was produced for SFI by media arts students at New Mexico Highlands University through a partnership with the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. The target age group for the exhibition is eighth grade to adult. It runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily (Mondays through Fridays) through Thursday, Feb. 28. Entrance is free and open to the public (without the necessity for special security clearances that are generally required to access government facilities).


Media Contacts
Lily Whiteman, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF, (703) 292-8311, email:

Program Contacts
Charles Liarakos, NSF, (703) 292-8400, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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