$5 Million Prize for Origin of Genetic Code

Organizers say knowing how DNA came to be could lead to intelligent, evolving computer code

Hand holding DNA
Image: iStockphoto

The most famous X-Prizes inspired us to look to the stars. Now, a high-stakes science prize wants us to look within, all the way down to the A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s of the genetic code.

The Evolution 2.0 contest just kicked off, and will be open until 2026. The prize, initiated by an intelligent design proponent but judged by two prominent biologists, promises $100,000 ($5 million if the approach is patentable) to whoever can solve the mystery of how the genetic code came to be. In other words, if you can demonstrate how to get a soup of chemicals to self-generate and transmit a code, they’ll make you rich.

It won’t be easy: The organizers claim the origin of the genetic code is “the hardest question in science.” DNA is the foundation of all life, and quite an elegant code to boot: Four bases (adenine [A], thymine [T], cytosine [C] and guanine [G]) form 64 triplets called codons, each of which encodes one of 20 amino acids that join to form proteins.

An explanation of how this code came to be would shed light on the origins of life, might explain where consciousness comes from, and could “trigger a quantum leap in artificial intelligence,” the organizers suggest. Such insights, they say, could be used to create evolving and/or naturally occurring computer code.

A winning team must produce a physical encoder, message, and decoder that self-organizes. According to the contest rules, it cannot simply be simulated on a computer, but should include some physical component that can be duplicated in a lab; and it must be digital, not analog.

So far, the contest has spawned a “shark tank for biological ideas,” says contest organizer Perry Marshall, founder of Natural Code LLC, the private equity investment group that issued the prize.

The competition, though it seems initially to be aimed at the life sciences community, didn’t originate there. Marshall, a former IEEE member and author of a book on the Ethernet, is currently a business consultant and strategist—not a biologist or chemist. What makes this scenario more unlikely, considering that the goal of the prize is to discover the origin of life: Marshall is a Christian proponent of intelligent design, and in 2005 gave a widely debated talk called, “If You Can Read This I Can Prove God Exists.” In it, he argues that all known codes are designed, and since no scientist can explain how the DNA code came to be, it must have been designed as well.

In an interview with IEEE, Marshall says his thinking has since evolved, and he no longer relies on gaps in knowledge as evidence for intelligent design. On his Evolution 2.0 website (the name of both his most recent book and the contest), Marshall now contends that the origin of life is a “valid field of inquiry,” which is why he established the Evolution 2.0 prize.

But does he actually want it to be solved? “I’m decidedly ambivalent about which way it goes,” Marshall told IEEE. “I think there’s a 10 percent chance of this getting solved in my lifetime. It’s a very hard problem. Nobody’s been able to solve it so far.”

Still, Evolution 2.0 has the support of some major figures in the scientific community. The judges for the prize include famed Harvard biologist George Church—who told Front Line Genomics that discovering the origin of the genetic code “is probably fairly straightforward engineering, but is still quite important”—and Oxford University’s Denis Noble, who developed the first mathematical model of cardiac cells in 1960, among other accolades.

Marshall says he was motivated to initiate the prize because he was frustrated reading scientific papers related to the origins of DNA and finding a lot of people “making stuff up” about “a warm pond and a lucky lightning strike.” Biologists would debate that description: Many government-funded research programs around the world investigate complex hypotheses about the origin and evolution of the genetic code. Check out this review paper for a recent summary. Marshall argues that scientists, including those who conducted the famous Miller-Urey experiment, have been approaching it as a chemistry problem, but that he believes it to be an information problem: How did this scheme for forming and transmitting symbolic information—triplets of nucleotides that encode amino acids—come to be?

In the end, Marshall hopes a solution, or even the search for one, will shed light on volition and consciousness. “Bacteria possess an evolutionary toolbox that would be the envy of any software engineer. I suspect this toolbox is volitional, in the same way your dog exercises volition when you tell him not to eat your steak,” he says. If DNA originated because a biological system made a choice—showed volition—then we could learn how that happened and apply it to software that self-directs or even evolves, says Marshall. “If we solve this…it will be the biggest discovery in biology, and in AI.”

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