109 The ELSI Origins Network, EON

Last month saw the official start on July 1st of EON, the ELSI Origins Network, after more than two years of preparation. EON was conceived from the start as the global counterpart of ELSI, in the form of a network connecting many centers where research is being done on origins of life, with ELSI as the central hub. Two weeks ago, we celebrated the launch of EON with a press conference at Tokyo Tech.

eon1NE.jpgEON press conference (from left): Piet Hut (EON Director), Kei Hirose (ELSI Director), Yoshinao Mishima (President of Tokyo Tech), and Hideki Iwabuchi (Director, Office for Basic Research Programs, MEXT)


It is our hope and expectation that both ELSI and EON will grow over the years, well beyond their original mandate. As one of the WPI institutes, ELSI's funding is expected to run for ten years, with the possibility of an extension for an additional five years. However, within the next few years we will start looking for additional funds to extend ELSI's lifetime indefinitely, well beyond the initial grant from the Japanese ministry of education, MEXT. Given the broad success of ELSI so far, now halfway in its initial five year period, we have all reasons to expect that we will be successful.

Similarly, we also view EON as an open-ended enterprise, well beyond its initial funding, running from July 1, 2015 til April 1, 2018, made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Some time next year we will start a fundraising compaign to continue, and to expand upon, our initial start-up phase. This first phase is centered around ten postdoc positions, nine workshops, many long-term visiting fellowships, four global science coordinator positions, visiting graduate student grants, and a number of seed grants for the incubation of novel international and interdisciplinary collaborative research projects.


The main reason for establishing EON is the fact that the science of the Origins of Life is still a young and also rather small field. ELSI's stated goal is to study the origins of Earth and other planets, near and far, as well as the origins of life, both as we know it on Earth, and as it may have emerged elsewhere in the Universe. The science of the formation and early evolution of the Earth and other planets is a mature field, with many more conferences and active researchers than the science of the origins of life. Theoretically, we know in large outline how planets formed from the original gas clouds that contracted to form a star. Observationally, we can see planets around other stars forming, and even in our own solar system we have plenty of mineralogical evidence in the form of meteorites.

All of this is largely missing in the study of origins of life. Theoretically, there are no agreed-up pathways from the geochemistry of the early Earth to the biochemistry of the first forms of (proto)life, preceding LUCA, the last universal common ancestor of any living cell that we have ever studied. Observationally, any attempt to reconstruct what happened on Earth four billion years ago will necessarily be extremely indirect; and direct observations of life on other planets, let alone its origins, may still be a long time away.

A Three-Pronged Approach

As a result, many individual researchers studying origins of life are working in (near) isolation, often in their spare time while officially being employed for other reasons. EON's main aim is to break that isolation, and to stimulate active collaborations between the many individuals and small centers working on origins of life. Our key strategy is threefold: the strategic use of a central hub; the formation of a constellation of different affiliated centers; and the cultivation of a flow of active researchers between the centers and between the centers and the hub.

EON's central hub, ELSI, is the largest single real-world center in origins of life -- in contrast to various virtual consortia, each spanning a variety of geographically distant centers. For an interdisciplinary activity, working in a single physical place has enormous advantages. Meeting colleagues from different disciplines over lunch and tea on a daily basis creates opportunities for informal exchange of information as well as serendipitous opportunities for the incubation of new collaborations.

Solliciting existing centers to participate in affiliations with EON creates fertile soil for the formation of an active collaborative network. This will go an important step beyond the current situation where individuals from different centers meet each other only at occasional workshops and conferences, or through already established joint research projects. Through frequent coordinated exchange visits, independent of current smaller-scale specific collaborations, we will establish an global active research community.

The cultivation of a flow of active researchers will start with the appointment of ten two-year postdoctoral EON fellows, each of whom will spend roughly half their time at the ELSI hub, and half their time at one of the EON affiliated centers. In addition, EON will make funds available to invite long-term visitors from affiliated centers to spend several months at a time at ELSI. Another offering by EON will be a seed grants program, where individuals from different affiliated centers can meet each other, in most cases at the EON hub, to engage in new forms of explorative joint research. Last but not least, we will start off with four EON `ambassadors', with the official title of Global Science Coordinators, who will visit ELSI for several months, to assist the resident EON team in coordination and communication across and beyond the ELSI Origins Network.


In addition, we will also hold more traditional workshops, at the rate of one every few months, most of them at ELSI, on important aspects of origins of life. The first two will both take place next month (see http://eon.elsi.jp/events/category/workshops/ for more information). The topic of the first one will be "The Emergence of Autonomous Subsystems in Complex Systems", and will be held at the Center for Planetary Sciences in Kobe, Aug. 12-14, as part of a larger summer school "Towards an Integrative Approach to the Study of Awareness". The second one will be a "Roadmap Workshop", to be held at ELSI, Aug. 26-28, with the aim of together crafting a strategy for origins of life research.

We invite ELSI members to take part in the Roadmap Workshop if they have time and interest, but we do ask that everyone attends one or more full days, from beginning to end, if possible all three days. Our goal is to come up with a kind of "white paper" document, and it would be distracting to have people coming and going during the day. Also, if someone would like to attend, who hasn't already registered, please send an email to piet@elsi.jp as soon as possible, so that we will have an idea of the size of the meeting.

The EON Team

As you can imagine, setting up from scratch a world-wide network, with a complex flow of scientists between the nodes, has not been a simple undertaking. The preparations have started in informal discussions in early 2013, followed by two one-day meetings at the Institute for Advanced Study in late 2013 and early 2014. More than a year ago, when we were invited to write our full proposal, we started putting together the EON team, and for the last twelve months, an enormous amount of work has been put into all the preparations necessary to hit the ground running, at our official start at July 1, 2015.

The current list of members of the EON team can be found on our web site on http://eon.elsi.jp/ and already has grown to 15 people, before we even got started. In addition, as of July 1, we are delighted to welcome Chris Butch as the first EON postdoctoral fellow who will divide his time during the next two years between ELSI and the Department of Chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, USA. We are planning to appoint nine more postdoctoral fellows between now and April 1, 2016 (see http://eon.elsi.jp/recruitment/ ); spread the word!

Last but not least, we want to use this opportunity to thank the wonderful staff of ELSI for all their collaborative efforts, to help us get EON off the ground. Without their help and advice, based on their detailed and rich experience and enthusiasm, we could never have even reached the starting line. Now we are all looking forward to a vibrant integration and intermingling of EON and ELSI activities, for the years to come. Happy zeroth birthday, EON!

Piet Hut, Director of EON
Nathaniel Virgo, Executive Director of EON

DSC_0545.jpgEON launch celebration: preparing small champagne toast