A millionaire scientist who once ran as a Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate has just launched a $50,000 prize to promote research on the origin of life. Yes, he has an ulterior motive: He hopes that researchers working on the question will eventually prove that life's origins can be fully explained by physical and chemical processes, without invoking a creator.
Harry Lonsdale is a chemist in Bend, Oregon, who made a fortune when he sold his drug development and research company to Pfizer more than 25 years ago. Since then, he has leveraged his wealth for social, civic, and political causes, including a series of unsuccessful bids to become a U.S. senator. The 79-year-old Lonsdale is an avowed atheist who has advocated for gay rights, campaign finance reform, and environmental protections. Now, he's on a mission to accelerate the quest to understand how life originated. Over the past 2 weeks, Lonsdale has taken out ads in Science, Nature, and Chemical and Engineering News announcing an Origin of Life Research Award that includes $50,000 for the best proposal to study the origin of life and up to $2 million in potential funding to carry out the work.
According to a Web site that spells out the details of the award, applicants are invited to submit "a cogent hypothesis for how life first arose, including its plausible chemistry, and for how primitive life could have evolved to modern biological cells, including the present genetic material and metabolism." Lonsdale says he's assembled a panel of heavyweights in the field, such as Harvard Medical School Nobelist Jack Szostak and NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay, to review proposals. While Lonsdale is encouraging the submission of unconventional hypotheses, the award's site notes that "submissions involving the supernatural or that violate physical laws will not be considered."
Lonsdale does not deny that his atheism is a driving force behind the initiative.
"Over the centuries, we've attributed so many things to God's will that have later turned out to have a scientific explanation," he says. "I believe that the creation of life was probably not an act of God. It was just nature running its course. I believe an answer will show up to this question ... and the answer will be: God didn't do it, nature did it." He believes scientists are already making great progress in solving the origin of life, and he hopes that his contribution will encourage other philanthropists to support origins research.
Lonsdale isn't the first to announce an origin-of-life prize. In 1999, the Gene Emergence Project, an obscure group that calls itself "an international consortium of scientists pursuing the natural-process derivation of initial biocybernetic/biosemiotic programming and control," announced a $1 million prize to encourage research on the same sorts of questions that Lonsdale is targeting. However, nobody has been awarded the prize yet, and over the years, some origin-of-life scientists have wondered if the Gene Emergence Project, led by David Abel, really has the money to make the award.
To assure potential applicants that he's not bluffing, Lonsdale has put $50,000 in a trust fund. "I am guaranteed to deliver," he says. Submissions will be reviewed starting in July, and an award—or multiple awards—will be announced early next year.