The Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME), supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, is managing a program to support innovative experimental projects to address and resolve paradoxes surrounding the origins of life.

When? The May 29, 2015 deadline for pre-proposals has now expired. Invitations for full-proposals will be sent out in the first half of July. Answers to frequently asked questions are still available on the FAQ page.

How many and how much? Depending on availability of resources and the quality of the applications, we expect to support a half-dozen projects, each to begin in March 2016 and extend for 33 months. An annual project budget of USD 250000 (direct costs) is a reasonable target. A maximum of 15% “overhead” may be added. Other conditions apply.

Who may submit? Any individual worldwide affiliated with any organization may submit.

Our motivation? Much current research in the field follows research “paradigms” that would have been familiar in the 1960’s to Leslie Orgel and Stanley Miller, two heroes in the field. A half-century and thousands of publications later, certain “paradoxes” nevertheless continue to make the origins problem appear difficult. For example:

(a) The Asphalt Paradox. Organic molecular systems (given energy and left to themselves) generally devolve to give uselessly complex mixtures, “asphalts”. Molecular theory anticipates such devolution, which is also a widely confirmed empirical observation, in kitchens and chemistry laboratories alike. Yet complex asphalts seem unable to support the emergence of life.

(b) The Water Paradox: Water is commonly viewed as essential for life, as are biopolymers like RNA, DNA, and proteins. However, biopolymers are corroded by water, leading to a paradox: Absent repair, how can biopolymers that must work in water survive in water? Indeed, how could they have emerged in water?

(c) The Information-Need Paradox. Theory estimates the information needed for a chemical system to gain access to “Darwinism” (or, more generally, self-sustained replication with imperfections that are themselves replicable). That information appears to be large relative to the likely prebiotic concentrations of building blocks.

(d) The Single Biopolymer Paradox. Even if a biopolymer emerges from building blocks that escaped devolution, theory suggests that it must "do" both genetics and catalysis. Unfortunately, these place very different demands on a biopolymer. Catalytic biopolymers should fold; genetic biopolymers should not. Catalytic biopolymers appear to need many building blocks; genetic biopolymers should have few. Catalytic biopolymers must catalyze reactions; genetic biopolymers must not, especially not reactions that destroy the genetic biopolymer.

(e) The Reactivity Paradox. Even if a biopolymer (RNA is often mentioned) strikes a good compromise between the needs of genetics and catalysis, and was assembled with adequate information in water from building blocks that escaped devolution, it appears more likely to catalyze the destruction of RNA than catalyze the replication of RNA.

What kinds of projects are being sought? A pre-proposal is most likely to be successful if it identifies a puzzle, problem, or paradox that makes it appear improbable (or impossible) for life to have emerged at all, and then proposes a new experimental approach to manage, constrain, or resolve that puzzle/problem/paradox.

What kinds of projects are not being sought? Projects that lack an experimental component are not being sought. Nor are projects that ask questions about natural history subsequent to the emergence of life, or approach the “origins” problem entirely classically; not sought are projects that answer these questions:

When is the earliest date when life was actually present on Earth?
How does evolution proceed after Darwinism is in place?
How did various features of modern biology arise after Darwinism was in place?
How did the universe, galaxies, solar system form?

This does not mean that such projects ask uninteresting questions. Rather, these are excluded because they are already being supported elsewhere (including NASA in its Exobiology and Astrobiology programs, or the Agouron Institute or Simons Foundation).