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Wealthy investors are offering a $10m prize to the first scientific team that can create a genetic code from simple chemicals — reproducing the unknown process that led billions of years ago to DNA as the vehicle for transmitting information in life on Earth.
The Evolution 2.0 prize is an initiative by Perry Marshall, an online marketing entrepreneur based in Chicago. It will be judged by prominent scientists, including George Church, genetics professor at Harvard university, and Denis Noble, the Oxford university biologist who was the first to model the human heart on a computer.
“The biggest problems in science today are: how life got going in the first place and what is the origin of the genetic code,” said Professor Noble. “We want to know whether the way information is encoded in DNA is the result of chance or whether there are good chemical reasons why the code should be the way it is.”
Mr Marshall is a Christian who has in the past espoused “intelligent design” — the controversial idea, rejected by most scientists, that evolution is the result of divine guidance. But he denied that Evolution 2.0 was an effort to assert that the origin of life was a divine miracle that scientists could not discover.
Other backers of the prize include marketing businessman Robert Skrob, investment manager Gary Klopfenstein and serial entrepreneur Jon Correll. Their involvement is not purely altruistic. The full $10m will only be awarded for a patentable coding system, which the prize sponsors will attempt to commercialise in partnership with the winner.
The rules of the prize state that the challenge is “to discover a purely chemical process that will generate, transmit and receive a simple code — a process by which chemicals self-organise into a code without the benefit of a designer”.
All known life uses a triplet genetic code. DNA has four chemical “letters”, represented as G, A, T and C, which are read in groups of three; each triplet encodes a building block of protein, the working molecule of life. But no one knows how this ultra-sophisticated information transfer system got going about 4bn years ago from the relatively simple chemicals then present on Earth.
Evolution 2.0 is a sign of a shifting emphasis in biology from regarding life primarily as a chemical system to looking at the flow of information through living creatures.
The prize could be won by producing a coding system like DNA from scratch or by coming up with something chemically quite different. “We don’t even know whether it can be won at all — whether anyone can come up with a self-creating system for transmitting information,” said Prof Noble.
Mr Marshall is confident that any winning system will have huge commercial potential, though its applications are impossible to predict in advance. “I think it would be as important for science and technology as the invention of the transistor,” he said.
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