Who Owns the Origin of Life?

As a long-time protector of the Pacific Northwest’s old growth forests and the once political darling of environmentalists there,  philanthropist Harry Lonsdale now thinks there is no greater wilderness to get his feet wet in than the origin of life. A chemist by training, who became a millionaire following the sale of his Oregon high tech company to Pfizer in the 1980s and then ran three times (unsuccessfully) for the US Senate, Lonsdale will shortly announce the winner(s) of his Origin of Life $50K Challenge for the best proposal detailing “first life”; $300,000 in additional research funding will be split among the top three finishing teams.  Lonsdale says he’s looking to give away a total of $2 M in support of origin of life investigations in the months to come in increments of $300,000.

In his search for a winning hypothesis, Harry Lonsdale has focused on proposals that cogently address the chemistry of “first life,” an area of research where he said he and his panel of peer reviewers are most knowledgeable.

He also told me that — per the industry practice — he’s been “sworn to secrecy” not to disclose the names of the reviewers, “the pros,” as he calls them, later remembering that he’d already revealed three of the names to an online magazine.

Not everyone is satisfied with the medieval lack of transparency that still shrouds peer review  or with the angling of the prize toward Darwinian science, which is now being marginalized by a growing number of responsible scientists.  Still, Lonsdale is going where few but NASA have gone before in funding origin of life research, and once again, he is being applauded as a champion.

Origin of life investigation is one of those areas of research where amateurs and credentialled scientists are on somewhat equal footing, since the terrain is still so fresh. But were any amateurs among Lonsdale’s top finishers? What will private money thrown into the mix do that public money has not been able to? And has Lonsdale’s political savvy served him well enough in dealing with the politics of evolutionary science?

Harry Lonsdale holds a BS degree in chemistry from Rutgers University and a PhD in chemistry from Penn State. He is the author of the book Running: Politics, Power and the Press and of more than 100 scientific papers and various patents as well as being founding editor of the Journal of Membrane Science.

Harry Lonsdale’s is a rags-to-riches story.  He was brought up on a chicken farm in New Jersey. His mother was a Sicilian immigrant and his Welsh father orphaned on the doorstep at age two.

Lonsdale served in the Air Force after college then worked as a research scientist in industry, at General Atomics Co. and Alza Corp.  He was also a visiting scientist in Germany and Israel.

I recently spoke with Harry Lonsdale by phone. He sounds decades younger than 80, and his enthusiasm regarding origin of life is boundless. Our interview follows.

Suzan Mazur: Your initiatives regarding campaign finance reform as well as the environment in the Pacific Northwest, your run for the US Senate from Oregon and your anti-war activism have been greatly appreciated. Jeffrey St. Clair, the environmental journalist and co-editor of CounterPunch, asked me to convey that you still have a lot of fans in “Orygun.” 

Harry Lonsdale: That’s kind of him to say so. I know Jeffrey’s writing. He’s a great guy.

Suzan Mazur: Now that you’re living in California, I’m curious if you might be thinking about another run for public office some time soon.

Harry Lonsdale: HEAVENS NO. You can quote me on that for sure. Heavens no. Let me just clarify. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done by far. The days are long. The pressure is endless. The rejection sometimes is overwhelming. So the answer is no.

I made many friends campaigning, for which I’m grateful. I hope some lifetime friends, scattered pretty much across Oregon, some around the country. But it was very, very hard on me. I’m not a particularly backslapping gregarious type.

Suzan Mazur: You sound gregarious. 

Harry Lonsdale: I like people but I’m not a crowd person. I tend to be a wallflower.

Suzan Mazur: Why did you leave Oregon for California? 

Harry Lonsdale: I spent the last 14 or 15 winters in the south, in Arizona and here in California. I got tired of Oregon winters. I lived in Bend, Oregon, which has pretty long winters, not severe, but it snows a fair amount. It’s colder than I like. I’m going back to Oregon for the summer. I still love Oregon.

Suzan Mazur: And now you’re championing an investigation into the origin of life . . .

Many think prebiotic evolution is too speculative to be discussed seriously, including University of Chicago microbiologist James Shapiro, who I recently interviewed on this page. Others like the 1,000 or so researchers in the NASA astrobiology program no doubt disagree. By your private funding of the Origin of Life Challenge, what do you hope to discover regarding origin of life that public funding has not been able to?

I’d like to note here your definition of life, which is, “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”

Harry Lonsdale: Let me just wade in. First of all — what is life? My own homestyle definition is this: (1) something that can reproduce itself, and (2) live off the land. It must be able to extract useful energy from its environment. We do that by eating mashed potatoes. But first life did not do that. First life was somehow able to extract useful energy from a very dismal environment three plus billion years ago. We don’t quite know how yet.

Suzan Mazur: But whose definition is the one I just quoted, which is on your Origin of Life website?

Harry Lonsdale: Not mine. That definition for life is the standard definition among the experts. And those five or six questions are not mine.

[“What were the nature and genesis of the first macromolecules on the prebiotic earth?

How did the building blocks that comprise these macromolecules become available and how were they assembled?

How did prebiotic molecules first acquire the capacity for storing genetic informaiton and how did the genetic machinery evolve?

At what stage in the origin of life did cells originate, and what did they contain?

How did those primitive cells evolve to modern biological cells?

What was the chemistry of the first metabolic pathway(s) and how did that metabolism evolve to modern cellular metabolism?

At what stage did proteins become involved in metabolic processes and how did the link first arise between genetic molecules and other functional molecules, such as enzymes?”]

I got those from some of the pros, particularly Jerry Joyce at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Callifornia. He was the principal author of those words. He and Dave Deamer at UC – Santa Cruz helped me with those five or six quotes. They’re not my words at all.

Suzan Mazur: The National Academy of Sciences has urged the US government to endow incentive prizes of tens of millions of dollars. Do you agree that more philanthropists should step forward to fund origin of life investigations even though how life began could for some time remain a “guess,” as David Deamer, who heads ISSOL (International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life and Astrobiology), characterized his own view of the subject in a conversation with me.

Harry Lonsdale: Yes I do agree that more philanthropists should step forward to fund origin of life investigatons. I’ll elaborate, but let me first back up. You asked me why I’m doing this in view of the fact that there’s already some NASA support for it. The people I’ve talked with, in fact the people I’ve made grants to, all say money in this field is extremely hard to come by.

You might think the National Science Foundation would have a great interest in this. But they don’t. Their funding of origin of life research is minimal. They’re funding a group at Georgia Tech — a man named Nicholas Hud has funding there — but beyond that I think there’s almost nothing.

Origin of life is one of the greatest unknowns we still have in science.. Five hundred years ago most of how the world and Universe worked was a mystery. Now many of those mysteries have been solved. Three of the great remaining mysteries are: (1) origin of the Universe, which we may never solve; (2) origin of life, which is a huge problem in my opinion; and (3) how the brain works.

Origin of life is largely underfunded. And there’s almost no international funding. One of my prizewinners is a Canadian-US team — which I’m not going to name right now — and they told me there’s no money for cross-border research. That is sad. There’s a lot of money in this country, there are a hundred or more billionaires.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet put together The Giving Pledge three or four years ago. They signed up about 70 people, all of them centi-millionaires and up, who have agreed to give away most of their wealth for worthwhile causes. Most of the money is going to hospital extensions and scholarship for students. Great stuff — but that’s not unveiling any of the great remaining mysteries. Some of those funds should be channeled to scientific endeavors.

Ninety percent of the dough for origin of life research in the US comes from NASA. As a result these researchers funded through NASA bring to their work the idea that life, or pieces of life, came from outer space. And it may have. But I don’t think there’s any evidence that pieces of life could not have been produced here on Earth. Yet there’s a bias in US origin of life research toward the extraterrestrial — space stuff, meteorites. I’m not sure such an emphasis is essential to discovering how life began on planet Earth. It’s certainly not part of my thinking.

Suzan Mazur: Bruce Runnegar, the former NASA Astrobiology Institute chief who’s now a professor of paleontology at UCLA, seems to agree with you. He told me regarding origin of life research that “investigations and experiments are relatively inexpensive on Earth. You can do all this for a few tens of thousands of dollars. But it’s a highly different matter if you’re going to Mars and spending a billion or two billion dollars returning samples or doing experiments in situ.”

Harry Lonsdale: One more point to make. I’m holding in my hand right now a full page ad from the New York Times by Bonhams international auctioneers and appraisers. It’s a photograph of a beautiful vase. Bonhams auctioned this vase off for $14,332,000. That’s a ton of money. Now I don’t know where that vase is going. I presume it’s going to be sitting on the shelf in some museum or somebody’s livingroom, but for $14 M we could fund all the origin of life research in the United States for five or 10 years and we’d still have the vase. A much better use for that money is scientific research, whether it’s origin of life or otherwise. It’s my lifelong training as a scientist to feel that way, I suppose, but we have money in this country and we should use it for some useful purposes.

Suzan Mazur: Are you currently designing any other prize, science or otherwise?

Harry Lonsdale: No.

Suzan Mazur: There has been criticism of science prizes. It’s been suggested that the prize money is often a platform for the sponsor of the prize. That a lot of the genius winners may be no more deserving than the next intellectual and that the prizes are frequently awarded to those whose ideas advance a certain belief system,i.e., the process is corrupt. Would you comment?

Harry Lonsdale: I would. In some cases that may be true. It may be a platform for other people, I don’t think it’s a platform for what I’ve done. I announced my prize, I bought space in Nature,Science magazine and Chemical & Engineering News to advertise the Challenge. And I printed a thousand brochures for distribution around the world. I attracted 76 proposals from 19 countries. I also assembled a team of peer reviewers.

Suzan Mazur: You first approached Dave Deamer in 2010 at UC – Santa Cruz with the proposal for the Origin of Life prize, and Deamer thought it was a great idea considering government funding for origin of life research has been drying up. Can you tell me who, aside from Dave Deamer, NASA – Ames planetary scientist Chris McKay and Nobelist Jack Szostak were referees for the prize? Were there any women on the peer review panel?

Harry Lonsdale: I have to say no, Suzan.

Suzan Mazur: Was it racially and ethnically diverse?

Harry Lonsdale: I’m afraid it was all white males.

Suzan Mazur: And was it a panel of international experts? 

Harry Lonsdale: Yes. One from Europe and seven from the US.

Suzan Mazur: Can you tell me who they were?

Harry Lonsdale: I’m sworn to secrecy on that.

Suzan Mazur: Is that right? 

Harry Lonsdale: Those names that you have, by the way, are correct — but I don’t want to reveal the other names because. . . NSF proposals are reviewed by peers and their names are never disclosed , so I’d rather not. But trust me, they were good people. I asked the best people I knew in the field who were the experts. I asked three such people, they all gave me a list. I combined those lists and picked out the 10 best people I could think of. I called 10. Eight accepted. So I immediately had a peer review panel.

Suzan Mazur: Were the referees paid? 

Harry Lonsdale: No. I picked up their expenses to come to a meeting in San Diego to discuss the proposals, but that’s all. I think referees are almost never paid as far as I know. They were eager to help all the way along the line. A group of great integrity.

Suzan Mazur: How did it the selection process work? Did the referees select the winner or winners or did you? And when will we know who won? 

Harry Lonsdale: The panel reviewed the top dozen proposals and then made recommendations on those proposals to me in writing. But in the end, it was my call.

On March 30 of this year I met from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon with all the reviewers at a hotel in San Diego. They came from across the US and from Europe. We discussed the top proposals and the reviews they had written beforehand. We all sort of sat around and chewed the fat. I asked a thousand questions. I then chose my favorite three proposals.

The three I picked were three of the four the experts had recommended. So I largely leaned on the reviewers, but ultimately the decisions were mine.

There are three groups of winners. They’re all teams. No individuals.  The $50K goes to a team of two and an additional $300,000 in research funds will be shared by scientists from all three groups.

Suzan Mazur: When are you going to announce? 

Harry Lonsdale: Before the end of this month we’ll put out a press release. I’m working on the press release right now. But until that’s done and sent out, I don’t want to discuss the winners.

Suzan Mazur: All teams. A dozen people or so? 

Harry Lonsdale: It’s actually seven people on three different teams and seven institutions. Seven people, seven institutions, three proposals.

Suzan Mazur: All institutional researchers. 

Harry Lonsdale: Yes.

Suzan Mazur: No independent scientists. 

Harry Lonsdale: No. A lot of independent people proposed but somehow their proposals didn’t get to the top of the heap.

Suzan Mazur: Any hints about the content of the winning proposals?

Harry Lonsdale: The papers are all based on the RNA world. How first life, how this first creature lived off the land is not addressed, only how that individual creature came to be and how it was able to reproduce itself. The thinking now is that RNA was the precursor of DNA. It’s a much simpler molecule.

All three winners look at some aspect of how RNA came to be and how it evolved. RNA has catalytic activity like proteins have. But in early life it’s thought, again not by me but by the experts, that proteins didn’t exist. So what was the catalyst? The thinking is that the catalyst was an RNA molecule called a ribozyme, which is a long strand of RNA. All the work I’m supporting deals with this RNA world — where RNA came from and how it came to be an early catalyst.

Suzan Mazur: The guidelines for the prize were as follows: “The proposal should take into account the conditions, materials, and energy sources believed to have existed on the prebiotic Earth. Submission should provide 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.”

Your PhD is in chemistry and your undergraduate degree also.

Harry Lonsdale: That’s correct.

Suzan Mazur: How deeply involved in origin of life science are you? And in designing guidelines for the prize, do you think that you and your advisors underplayed the importance of physical processes in prebiotic evolution? I’m thinking about, say the work of Duke University mechanical engineer and constructal theorist Adrian Bejan and his investigation of river basins and pre-biotic flow systems, etc., where the line between animate and inanimate is blurred and life is viewed as an organized flow of matter, electricity, heat, etc. 

Harry Lonsdale: Can I back up before I answer that question. That sentence you read to me over the phone as to what I hoped it was people would give me in terms of their proposals, I must say I was very much underwhelmed by the breadth of their proposals. Even the experts I drew together in San Diego a month or so ago, even they don’t have a single clear model of how life began. There’s no universal agreement. We don’t have a theory. We’re a long way from home base. Probably 10 or 20 years away before we have a plausible model and even further out into the future before we can say we know how life began. I’ll be dead before people can make that statement.

Suzan Mazur: Is it because your background is in chemistry that you were more interested in proposals based on chemical approaches to origin of life?

Harry Lonsdale: I would say that of the eight people on my panel, three at most were trained in chemistry, some were biochemists, there was one physicist, a space scientist and two biologists — it was a pretty broad range of expertise. No engineers. I guess we underplayed the physical processes, but not intentionally.

Suzan Mazur: But did you get proposals along those lines? 

Harry Lonsdale: A few. We had proposals that came in from every direction.

Suzan Mazur: Chris McKay once told me the following:

“The Darwinian paradigm breaks down in two obvious ways. First, and most clear, Darwinian selection cannot be responsible for the origin of life. Secondly, there is some thought that Darwinian selection cannot fully explain the rise of complexity at the molecular level. . . . It can’t be Darwinian all the way down. . . . Darwinian selection only works when there’s software. And everything that’s prebiotic is hardware.”

Again, “life” has been defined on the Origin of Life Challenge website as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.” My question is that by steering your prizewinning search for the origin of life in the direction of Darwinian science, which is now being seriously marginalized in light of the “evo-devo revolution” — as Noam Chomsky put it — and the evolution paradigm shift, with some of our most esteemed scientists declaring neo-Darwinism dead — the accumulation of genetic mutations being enough to change one species to another having not been validated in the literature — are you concerned that you and your panel may have angled the prize in the direction of false hypotheses?

Harry Lonsdale: I think that first life was capable of evolution and that evolution began on that day that first life came into being. Was there evolution before that first life? I don’t think that. Evolution is what brought that first life to you and me — a long, long tedious process that took billions of years.

We were hoping people might submit proposals covering the gamut, from first life to modern life. No proposals attempted to do that. It’s too big a question right now. It’s 2012 — let’s wait until 2025. Maybe by then people will have put the whole puzzle together, but right now we’re looking at pieces, or pieces of pieces, of this puzzle.

Suzan Mazur: What I’m questioning is the angling of the prize to Darwinian science which is now being marginalized. 

Harry Lonsdale: When you say angling toward. It’s true. First life was angling toward but not yet there. Evolution came after the first life.

Suzan Mazur: I asked Dave Deamer if life had a beginning or is it just part of a process inherent to the Universe. And he said, “It’s part of a process.” I also asked him if evolution started when the Universe was born. His response was “It depends on what you want to call evolution.” 

Harry Lonsdale: Evolution is a process once life exists, is how I would put it.

Suzan Mazur: Life has been on earth for nearly 4 billion years, how urgent would you say it is that we now find the answer to the great mystery of who we are and where we came from? 

Harry Lonsdale: Why now? That’s a tough question to answer. Life on Earth is almost 4 billion years old, most of what we know about the rest of the Universe is about 400 years old. It really started with Isaac Newton and Copernicus. An enormous amount has happened in the last 50 plus years since the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the rate of increase in knowledge is accelerating all the time with the Internet. I suspect we’re going to know more in the next 50 years than we knew in the previous 500. So as to the urgency of discovering who we are and where we came from — I’d say what’s important to focus on is not that life has been unaware of its origin for nearly 4 billion years and we’ve gotten along just fine, but to consider the possibilities once we move beyond these hard questions and finally make the breakthrough.

I’ve had four careers in the last 80 years. Starting my own company was the biggest thrill.  But this is the second biggest thrill of my life. It really is.

Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry. Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programsShe can be reached at: sznmzr@aol.com

Suzan Mazur is the author of  The Altenberg 16: An Expose’ of the Evolution Industry and of a forthcoming book on Origin of Life.  Her reports have appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur,Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC.  She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs.  For a few years along the way she was a runway fashion model, visiting Iran in 1976 as part of a US bicentennial goodwill tour of the Middle East (former CIA Director Richard Helms was then ambassador to Iran and attended the Tehren fashion gala).