The past few decades have seen a tremendous increase in our understanding of biology and the processes necessary for sustaining life. The advent of new, high-throughput technologies like next-generation sequencing now enable studies of entire genomes and transcriptomes of organisms, from bacteria to human, in unprecedented detail. In spite of these advances, a few fundamental questions in biology, some that have fascinated mankind for generations, still remain unanswered- Is the biology we know and understand universal, or are there other kinds of life? Is there more than one tree of life? Is there life that we haven’t discovered yet? Motivated by the lack of answers to these questions, we launched the Boundaries of Life (BoL) Research Initiative, which brings together a highly accomplished, interdisciplinary team of scientists that will tackle these questions head-on. The main objectives of the initiative are to: a) Develop assays and methods to discover novel ‘shadow’ life; b) Transform BoL and related research into a robust and mature field of scientific inquiry by recruiting and training the next generation of scientists; and c) Develop a strong funder base that is interested in furthering the initiative’s science and community objectives.
Phase I of BoL (2014 launch) saw the development of a number of new assays and methods, including high-throughput electron microscopy, ‘mini’ metagenomics pipelines that allow detailed analysis of a few cells, phage population surveys, mass spectrometric surveys for Xeno nucleic acids (XNAs) and DNA extraction methods that describe component species in microbial communities at an unprecedented level of resolution. The initiative is now transitioning to Phase II work, where the team will primarily focus on the chemistry of life and undertake metabolomics related studies. Besides science, the BoL team will build collaborations with the wider community of scientists and start assembling a strong funder base.