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The origin of life is one of the great unsolved problems of science. Darwin pointedly left out of his theory of evolution how life got started: ‘one might as well speculate about the origin of matter,’ he once quipped. The progress made in molecular biology in the 21st century served only to deepen the mystery. Life seems ‘almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going,’ wrote Francis Crick. For life to emerge, a mish-mash of chemicals must transform into an organized information-processing system. Chemists have guessed the likely first steps – making life’s basic building blocks from simple molecules – and biologists studying the simplest microbes may be glimpsing the final steps. But the chasm separating these extremes is vast and baffling. Our project will shine a light on this chasm.

Core themes. There must be a way of discriminating between complex chemical pathways that are in some way approaching life, from random pathways of comparable complexity. This domain, which we playfully call ‘almost life’ (AL), is largely unexplored. New technology and computational tools will enable us to create tightly-integrated theory and experiment to penetrate this unexplored realm.

The need. At present, little can be said about how likely the origin of life is. Many big questions hinge on the answer.

Big questions. Are we alone in the universe? Is there more than one form of life on Earth? Is life a freak accident or a ‘cosmic imperative’?

Activities. We hypothesize the degree of ‘lifelikeness’ is reflected in the emergence of patterned information flows in chemical networks. We will investigate how information can ‘boot-up’ life from lifeless chemicals.

Deliverables. A new, more quantitative, account of life’s origins.

Impact. A transformation in the methodology of origin of life research and profound ramifications for astrobiology and the search for life beyond Earth.