‘There is life elsewhere in the universe’

To search for life in outer space, scientists need to better understand how early life developed on Earth. It is thought that some organisms found in underwater volcanic vents may be representative of early forms of life. Imagebroker / Alamy Stock Photo

Swiss Nobel laureate Didier Queloz and Swiss-German astrophysicist Sascha Quanz plan to study the origins of life at a new centre in Zurich. What exactly do the researchers hope to discover?

This content was published on October 19, 2021 - 09:00

The new Centre for the Origin and Prevalence of Life is set to open at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich next year. Collaborations with the British University of Cambridge are also foreseen. SWI met the masterminds behind the new campus.

Didier Queloz.

SWI Didier Queloz, you received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering the first exoplanet. What chance is there that life exists outside Earth, maybe on one of the exoplanets or on Mars?

Didier Queloz: I am absolutely convinced that there is life elsewhere in the universe. For the simple reason that there are way too many stars and there are too many planets. So to have life as a unique thing on Earth, that would be too rare to be possible.

SWI: As a scientist, how would you define life?

D.Q.: (Laughs) When you talk about the origin of life, this is the most obvious question to start with. There are two ways to look at it. First, we know life as it is on Earth and can use it as a reference. And this is valid because the chemistry you have on Earth may have happened on another planet as well. So you look for something on the basis of what you know from Earth.

Didier Queloz

Born in 1966, Didier Queloz is a Swiss astronomer who discovered the first exoplanet in 1995 together with his doctoral supervisor Michel Mayor. 51 Pegasi b is an exoplanet that orbits a star similar to the Sun.

According to experts, this was one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century in astronomy. It opened up new fields of research and massively increased the chances of finding extraterrestrial life.

In October 2019, the two Swiss scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their exoplanet research.

Queloz, previously a professor of astronomy at the University of Geneva and the University of Cambridge, moved to ETH Zurich in 2021 to set up the research centre and head the management team.

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Then there is the unknown: How can you identify life without knowing what it is? The most sensible answer is trying to see life as part of the planetary system. Life will at some point play a role in the history of a planet like it has on Earth, where oxygen is just the result of life.

So you would expect the chemistry of a planet to be in some way affected by life. The challenge will be to identify this. You may find that there is some feature that you can't explain and may decide to call it "other life".

SWI: Under which conditions can life come into existence?

Sascha Quanz: We don't really know the answer. We know how life works on Earth and are beginning to understand the initial conditions of how life started on Earth. But another question is: Can you imagine other conditions? This is actually one of the questions we are trying to address in the new centre.

Sascha Quanz

Born in 1979 in Germany, the astrophysicist, who also has Swiss citizenship, obtained his PhD from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. He came to ETH Zurich in 2009. In 2019 Quanz was appointed Associate Professor for Exoplanets and Habitability at the Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics at ETH Zurich.

His research group is involved in the development of instruments for major ground- and space-based observatories to study the physical and chemical properties of extrasolar planets and their formation process.

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SWI: You said we need to know more about the origin of life on Earth. Would it be possible to create life in the lab?

D.Q.: Technically, you could "reverse engineer" the origin of life. You can try to go back to the beginning, like when you take a car apart and learn how to build it up again. I think people agree that until somebody has created some sort of life in a lab, we don't really know what the origin of life is.

Sascha Quanz

SWI: Why is the topic of life elsewhere so interesting for humanity?

S.Q.: I think it's one of the most fundamental questions that humanity has been asking itself literally for centuries. One of the other questions you could ask is: Why is it so important right now?

There are different places in the international university landscape where people are coming together to address these questions. It's a combination of progress within different research fields. It took a while, but we have established some of the concepts sufficiently well.

I think now is really the time to start interdisciplinary research, because we will be stuck if we do not reach out to colleagues from other disciplines.

SWI: In June ETH Zurich and the University of Cambridge will open new centres, an idea that you both proposed. Interdisciplinarity is a key feature of these centres, isn't it?

S.Q.: Everyone who is interested in the topic is welcome to join and be part of the game. We will start with what I would say are the most obvious disciplines: chemistry, biology, earth sciences and astrophysics.

However, we are also talking to environmental systems scientists, people who understand the climate of this planet, for instance. This could also be very useful to guide some of the thinking, some of the ideas. We will have to see who's interested in the topic. I would say, the more the merrier.

SWI: So, different researchers will start talking together at the coffee machine in the new centre?

S.Q.: (Laughs) Yes, different disciplines approach the question of the origin or the prevalence of life from different directions. People realise that at some point in time you just hit a block. You cannot continue because you lack the expertise, the knowledge or data that can be provided by other disciplines.

The coffee machine will be a means to ensure sufficient interaction and communication. When you embark on such an interdisciplinary task, you have to make sure people start talking to each other. You have to get rid of your specialised language. You try to break it down to a level that everyone can really understand, and only then you spark new ideas and can really develop new research.

SWI: Didier Queloz, you will be the director of the centre. What are some of your concrete plans?

D.Q.: We have zillions of concrete plans. That is exactly the problem we're dealing with right now. I think the creativity and what we want to do is way too large and way too big for the number of people we have. For example, we plan to have some capacity to study rocks that will be brought back to Earth from Mars.

What we're trying to do is not just creating facilities and providing access. It is about starting a new field of research by opening ways for young researchers to develop themselves and to go somewhere else afterwards to establish new groups.

SWI: How great is the interest in working with you?

D.Q.: There are a lot of people who are very curious about what's going on. We will try our best to make sure that we build up enough momentum. It'll be about money at some point. So we have to offer something to these young people. It's not easy to get people to go out of their comfort zone, but there is so much to discover. So let's have fun and let's do it together.

SWI: What importance will this centre have for the Swiss scientific community?

D.Q.: In terms of scientific quality, Switzerland is extremely well placed in the world. So you would expect the country to be going for the top topics. And this is one of them. Switzerland has a high university level, funding and quality of research, which you will not find everywhere.

I think having the topic of the origins of life in Switzerland will attract people from abroad. We will attract students, maybe junior professorships. We will attract some people that may not have considered going to Switzerland in the first place. I think this will have consequences for the country in general, because these people will teach, they will help build up knowledge that sooner or later will go into industry.

Even now, with a situation where Switzerland is struggling to find its precise relationship with the European Union, I think having an extraordinary scientific goal helps to build links with industries, with other universities and other countries. So, we're introducing some inspiration into society. And that's something that should not be neglected. Because inspiration makes a society happy and alive.

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