Entrepreneurs offer $10m prize for cracking mystery of DNA

This article has been republished with written permission from The Financial Times Ltd.



At the Royal Society in London: Financial Times Science Editor Clive Cookson; Denis Noble, Fellow of the Royal Society; and Perry Marshall at the Evolution 2.0 Prize announcement.

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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27 Responses

  1. The purpose of the experiment is to discover a purely chemical process that will organize itself into a code as opposed to determining “how did the existing code come into existence”? In the first instance man will bang his head against the wall for infinity trying to get chemicals to organize themselves. God however has DNA functioning beautifully. Concentrate on finding out how God did it. As the old saying goes: A problem well stated is half solved.

    • Tom Bunzel says:

      The answer to your question is not chemical but mental. As I write in my book, “If DNA Is Software Who Wrote the Code” there cannot be information without a Mind. We have little or no understanding or appreciation for Consciousness as a part of Nature.
      The best explanation for the existence of DNA as an organic programming language would be to recognize the Infinite Intelligence is a “property” of Existence/Nature/Source/Being
      (I hesitate to use the word “God” because of its emotional charge but I believe that authentic religion is based on this truth).


    • Michael Packer says:

      Maybe the prize should go to the first person to prove your celestial dictator exists … nobody has yet …

  2. Roger Sawtelle says:

    Dear Perry Marshall,
    Congratulations on the prize. You are right in saying that evolution is not purely genetic or physical. On the other hand Life is not purely information or rational either, so I think that you are barking up the wrong tree.

    Life is physical and rational (information), and also spiritual or social and relational. Life is not a scientific problem that can be solved by an mathematical equation. Life is a scientific, philosophical, and theological issue that can only be addressed by a world view that reconciles those three aspects of reality.

    The is our biggest problem today that we are the products of Western dualism that divides people, when we need to be reconciled.

    I will send you my book, Darwin’s Myth: Malthus, Ecology, and the Meaning of Life., if you are interested.


    Rev. Roger A. Sawtelle

    • Peter Gates says:

      No. Ideological dogma alert. Totally irreverent.

    • Michael Packer says:

      Sorry to bust your babble,Rev, but evolution is true … maybe time to realize that your celestial dictator is a superstitious fabrication of Iron Age authors living in a remote arid region on this rock we live on today trying to explain unknowns to the remainder of the primitive primates … as we evolving primates have done since our relatively large brain has allowed us … in 4.5 billion years, when the Andromeda Galaxy collides with our “candy bar” Galaxy our future relative primates watching their final day will resemble a vastly different primate than what their ancestor resembles today … through natural selection and evolution … maybe time to put down your book of fairy tales and pick up books based on scientific findings and evidence … 🙂

  3. Mayesa Dasa says:

    The question of evolution is not answered without access to a life force. A living being births a living being. The dead do not procreate.
    That life force is not composed of matter therefore without access to knowledge of the transcendental life force the search for chemical and atomic forces will result in failure eternally.
    Evolution is the science of the soul’s transmigration through material bodies. This science is available in the Vedic literature.

    • Srdan Klikovac says:

      Do you have any proof of what you wrote? If your evidence is in Vedic books then your proof is weak. This important issue of the Origin of Life should be written carefully and with some scientific evidence that describes measurable results. Vedic literature is unsuitable for this forum and practically represents a waste of time.

      • Srdan, this will be your last blog comment unless you can keep your communication civil and polite.

        • Srdan Klikovac says:

          I think I made a mistake when I chose this forum. This forum is more inclined to theology than science. There are too many comments on theology that can not explain the Origin of Life on Earth. Because if it can already explain the Origin of Life with the help of the Bible or Vedic literature, it would already be explained in the exact way. You were not so strict about comments that disparage Dawkins theory. Science and laboratory analysis are what will explain the Origin of Life on Earth. Believe you or not I’m a step away from it. My reason for the presence of this forum is not because of a $ 10 million prize, but to reveal my discovery to the world that will greatly improve medicine and save many lives. To a modest extent, I already do it, with or without God’s help, it’s all the same. Most importantly, I have evidence of what I’m talking about. The human race has risen and has survived since it has ceased to look at the sky, but to observe and think more about the events on Earth and the real causes and consequences. It is a reality, and whether Science will be able to explain what is actually a reality, we will see it in the future. Dear Perry, please delete all of my comments from beginning on this forum, upon 3 days from now. I just want my like-minded readers to read this last comment. And if you are so democratic, we will see. Best regards. Srdan

          • You asked the guy a question in a demeaning way. Yes I understand that you want science not theology – but you can be polite when you ask.

            You have posted your comments here in the past and they will remain.

            I hope you are able to solve origin of life – much accolades will go to those who do.

  4. Kevin Bates says:

    Hi, I’m neither a Scientist nor a Theologian so I’m aware that I’m way out of my depth here but hey here goes…..
    Everything I read and hear on the subject of the origins of life starts from the premise that the physical universe existed first and then somehow life developed from that . Irrespective of whether the BigBang Theory or some other model is used this assumption is always made…
    Now I know how silly this might sound but what if the reverse was true?
    My understanding of science is that you shouldn’t make assumptions but should look at the evidence available…
    I look at our planet as it’s the easiest one to observe and the processes of life and death and decay seem to literally add physical mass to this world, layers of rock were once formerly forests and savannah, oil and coal are formed from organic material, unless my teachers taught me wrong even diamonds can trace their origins to organic materials… you see where I’m going with this so I’ll try to not labour the point…. recently discoveries have shown life can exist in what were previously considered impossible circumstances in parts of the oceans near acidic volcanic plumes ( I know that’s probably not the correct description but you guys are clever so you’ll know what I’m referencing) so … what if and obviously it’s a big what if, but what if the first materials were organic? what if all those planets out there are remnants of previously organic worlds? If that were the case then the answer to the question may lie closer to the material decay from life to death to inorganic mass,
    In other words flipping the question on its head and working backwards…
    That’s my two pennies worth…
    be gentle 😊

  5. Anthony Hargan says:

    I’m not sure where to put this comment, but I wanted to mention this somewhere in context of the work of this web site. In Evolution 2.0 page 294 (Kindle Edition), Perry Marshall writes, “3. Nowhere in engineering communication theory or computer science is noise added to a signal to increase its information content.”

    Google the phrase “imagination engines” and find a web site created around the work of Dr. Stephen Thaler. (Is it ok to put direct links in comments on this web site?) He’s a computer scientist who specializes in artificial neural networks (ANNs) and a few decades ago he accidentally stumbled upon a way that ANNs could “discover” novel information that it couldn’t have known before and is not a combinatoric, derivative, deductive, or inductive expression of what it already knew. He introduced what he calls “stochastic perturbations” (i.e. noise) into the connection weights of the connections between neurons and the ANN produced novel information. Dr. Thaler theorizes that the “noise” in the connection weights loosens the constraints around the knowledge domain trained into the ANN and allows it to “discover” (i.e. output) new knowledge outside its originally trained state.

    Two very important things around this discovery in my opinion: 1. He found there was a “sweet spot” in the level of perturbations that would produce novel information – too much perturbation and it produced random garbage, too little perturbation and it repeated what it already knew. And 2. this mechanism is not divorced from intelligence in the sense that it requires the perturbed ANN to already “know” something (i.e. be trained) and it requires a second ANN to evaluate the output of the perturbed ANN (put together he calls them a Creativity Machine) to see if the information is really novel or not.

    I’m not sure if this counts as a code or not. An ANN uses mathematical algorithms to change the connection weights of the connections between the neural nodes, and the ANN can be said to contain a message in the form of “knowledge” that has been trained into it. So are the algorithms used to train the ANN and also get information out of the ANN the decoder and encoder? Would the current state of the network of nodes, connections, and connection weights be the physical message? And would the information trained into the ANN be the code? I’m not convinced this arrangement qualifies under Perry Marshall’s requirements for defining a code. Or if it does, neural networks are still “engineered” either by humans (the artificial ones) or by life.

    It’s still interesting in the sense that “new” information is essentially being created from noise – though again – only in combination with intelligence. Also this does NOT address the “origin of life” (or origin of information) question because both the ANNs in the Creativity Machine have to have had “knowledge” originating from outside themselves in order for this to work. Dr. Thaler thinks his discovery reinforces materialism and explains how human brains work from a reductionist perspective, but I think it actually reinforces the idea that intelligence and information had to come first – before matter and energy.

    One other thing to note is that this is already engineered technology that is patented and already working and producing real-world results. Dr. Thaler came at this from the perspective of trying to engineer something and not from the high-minded, philosophical perspective of trying to prove or disprove anything within information theory concerning the origin of information. This technology has already been used to discover new toothbrush designs, new synthetic materials, new ways to make weapons better (unfortunately), and to write new music, among many other things.

    Bringing this back to Evolution 2.0, I can’t help but wonder if Dr. Thaler’s discovery is another tool in life’s Swiss Army Knife used to evolve itself. I recently read Perry Marshall’s Evolution 2.0 book and have been following Dr. Thaler for more than a decade and I can’t help but feel that the work of these two individuals somehow “fits” together, I’m just not sure how. My intuition tells me Dr. Thaler’s work is a little more important than saying it’s just another “useful” way that noise can be harnessed similar to the way it can be harnessed for something like dithering, but maybe my intuition is wrong.

    • Thaler’s work sounds very similar to stochastic resonance. This is not terribly different from the idea in Denis Noble’s EXCELLENT book “Dance to the tune of life” and many of his papers which talk about “harnessing stochasticity.” Yes, randomness happens in biology and cells 1) guard heavily against damage via randomness, and 2) harness randomness in interesting ways, for example in VDJ recombination in the immune system, holding most of DNA code fixed and varying a tiny section of it with random inputs, sort of like how one might pick a combination lock if you knew 3 of the 4 numbers.

      This will work within limited parameters IN A SYSTEM THAT HAS PREPROGRAMMED GOALS IN THE FIRST PLACE – the system can be programmed to harness the randomness.

      But to propose that evolution can work in an entirely purposeless system, with no control mechanism other than natural selection is a hypothesis that has yet to be proven in genetic algorithms and the like.

  6. Collette Gaskin-Gutierrez says:

    In a recent podcast interview w/Jerry Jones, Perry Marshall said, “The problem with most TruthTellers is they’re not DARING enough to tackle these things… and then only the people with narcissistic personality disorders seem to be DOING it… and that’s not good.”

    Messiah Yeshua said it this way, “And it is true that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with the world around them than are the children of the light.”

    As a child, I read an abridged version of Beowulf in which the mother of the problem was missing. I never knew how much I was missing her… until now.

    She’s also missing in modern “Christian” philosophy. Her less than conspicuous absence is just one mound on the mountain of motives for which I’ve abandoned modern “Christianity” as a man-made religious FRAUD substituting for the FAITH:

    F ears
    R ebellion
    A nxiety
    U nbelief
    D oubt

    F ear only God
    A ct in obedience to God
    I nvoke the shalom of God
    T rust in the Word of God
    H ope in the promises of God

    I’ve also recently purchased 80/20 for myself and a close friend to read. If an 80/20 lifestyle leads to these kinds of harrowing adventures in FAITH, we need to be all in.

  7. David Hamner says:

    Is randomness illusory? Is the level of ordered complexity just greater than our cognitive capacity to recognize the pattern? I remember helping my father test his gamma particle detection equipment at Hamner Electronics in Princeton NJ in the 60s, as a young lad, pressing a button and reading a number as he recorded them on a legal pad, for hours. Gamma particles passing through a sodium iodide crystal should be as close to a stochastic process as I know, and yet a vast but “finite” system created it – so it can’t be truly random. It must be deteriministic but ordered at a level far beyond the human species. But we can explore and learn about learning. Perhaps that’s the most fun bit (pun intended).

  8. AnDrew Daddy says:

    I know exactly how to do it the question is which code they need as I have every one in creation ,

  9. AnDrew Daddy says:

    I know all of all within all of all levels of creation there is no mystery on the entirety of planet aside from greed for even the church put’s wealth before people as for the Resurrection tis also simple to understand, , ,

  10. AnDrew Daddy says:

    There is no mystery on the entirety of planet aside from greed for even the church put’s wealth before people as for the Resurrection tis also simple to understand, , ,

  11. Well.. It’s still interesting in the sense that “new” information is essentially being created from noise – though again – only in combination with intelligence. Also this does NOT address the “origin of life” (or origin of information) question because both the ANNs in the Creativity Machine have to have had “knowledge” originating from outside themselves in order for this to work. Dr. Thaler thinks his discovery reinforces materialism and explains how human brains work from a reductionist perspective, but I think it actually reinforces the idea that intelligence and information had to come first – before matter and energy.

  12. Kimberly O'Connor says:

    The only answer will come from an intelligence far greater then our own. They live among us and the government has had them within their grasps for many years. This contest is no contest for humans as we will never be taken seriously especially if no degree from a high places college isn’t involved. There is but only one way of getting this and it is not from humans to answer.

  13. Ameet Sharma says:

    The first natural language is a code that is not designed. How did the first natural language arise? The first language was not designed… language provides the very cognitive tools needed to create language… yet the first language came into existence somehow. Once we have a “critical mass” of language, we have sufficient cognitive tools to keep language going.

    Humans didn’t design the first language, but they did create it through some sort of iterative improvement. The essential point is that there is a process of growth of intellect by trial/error and feedback.

    Why not make the analogy between language and life? Something similar is going on. Makes more sense to me than design.

  14. Howard Cash says:

    I don’t know how fair the final judging will be but it seems by the moderation of the comments that there is a pro-theological slant. Not surprising given the origins and initiation of the financial support of this contest. Even the definition of a one way flow of information is unlikely since the probable pre-biotic RNA world will go through many instances of base combinations giving different chain lengths of RNA with variable base sequence. Some of these sequences will have the known phenomenon of RNA enzymatic activity. The proto-enzymes may alter the chemical mix to make these longer RNA sequences more likely and/or increases the probability of production of the same or similar proto-enzyme activity. Billions of similar iterations can produce proto-enzymes that enable the direct matching of the old RNA sequence with a new sequence and that is reproduction. The code is the reproduction and reproduction is the code.

    • This is one reason why we have appointed top judges from academia with diverse views on metaphysical questions; Michael Ruse is a somewhat famous atheist/agnostic; Denis Noble is a Buddhist; George Church has a plurality of religious views in his background.

  15. Douglas Kabewa says:

    This prize is almost similar to the greatest problem in Computer Science which is P vs NP. The technological implications are massive if P =NP. Which is just about similar for this prize.

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