MPIA scientist awarded renowned Cozzarelli Prize

May 03, 2018
During the weekend, the National Academy of Sciences of the USA presented this year's Cozzarelli Prize in a festive ceremony. Together with their Canadian colleagues Ben Pearce and Ralph Pudritz, Dimitry Semenov and Thomas Henning from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) were awarded for one of their outstanding publications to explore the origins of life, which appeared in the PNAS Journal in 2017.

Since 2005, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America has awarded the Cozzarelli Prize. Yearly, the academy honours research publications of outstanding scientific excellence and originality published the year before in the renowned PNAS Journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). PNAS exists since 1915 and covers a broad range of cutting-edge research in the fields of biology, physics and social sciences. Since 2007, the award has been named after the well-known American biochemist Nicholas Robert Cozzarelli (1938-2006), who was editor-in-chief between 1995 and 2006. The prize is awarded annually by the editors. The selection is based on all publications from the previous year.

Last Sunday (29.04.2018), Ben Pearce, Ralph Pudritz, Dimitry Semenov and Thomas Henning were awarded the Cozzarelli Prize for 2017 at the PNAS Editorial Board Meeting in Washington DC in a ceremony for their publication Origin of the RNA world: The fate of nucleobases in warm little ponds (PNAS Oct 2017, 114 (43) 11327-11332).

For many decades it has been a hot research topic to explore how the first building blocks of life - i.e. substances from organic chemistry - appeared on earth about four billion years ago. How could so-called nucleobases such as Adenine, which formed the basis for the first life on Earth, be enriched?
In fact, the publication of the Canadian and Heidelberg authors can be described as outstanding and of originality, because the authors have chosen an extremely interesting and currently still rather unusual approach to investigate this question.
They chose carbon-containing meteorites as the source of the original building blocks and modeled the life-span of the nucleobases in small warm freshwater ponds on volcanic land masses, in which biological evolution could then start.
With this approach, however, the authors argue against the usual way of thinking, the paradigm of biologists, namely that life was created in the oceans and the original building blocks evolved due to the triggering by chemical energy.

However, this approach may seems obvious to modern astronomers, since astrophysicists have already found complex organic molecules even in extremely cold clouds of gas and dust in the Milky Way and also in other hostile to life environments in space. And in particular in meteorites and comets numerous organic substances have been found, making such objects to interesting candidates for possible sources of the original building blocks of life, because our planet was exposed to a bombardment from these celestial bodies in its early days.

The work of Pearce, Pudritz, Semenov and Henning documents the remarkable rise of this reserach area and of astrochemistry to an extremely modern, forward-looking field of research over the last 15 years in which interdisciplinarity plays an important role. With the HIFOL initiative (Heidelberg Initiative for the Origins of Life, see launched by Thomas Henning and Oliver Trapp, MPIA has been trying for several years to bring scientists together for the research in this field.

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