The basic idea behind Craig Walton’s research sounds fathomable: “If we can reproduce the geological conditions prevailing on Earth before life began, we’ll be able to find out how life originated and how it was able to continue,” the earth scientist explains. “To explore this possibility, I want to build miniature planetary landscapes inside glass jars.” But what exactly were these conditions and where do the ingredients needed to recreate them come from?
“Findings from Earth and planetary science research deliver important information about the environment that existed on Earth over four billion of years ago. By working closely with researchers from other disciplines who are also investigating the origin of life, we can add more parts to the puzzle,” the scientist continues.
To implement his idea – a highly complex undertaking – Craig Walton has access to the interdisciplinary network of the Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life (COPL) at ETH Zurich. “At the Centre we can pool knowledge and hopefully answer questions together,” he says excitedly.
Scottish volcanoes and Pokémon
Walton’s interest in geology started young, having grown up in Scotland, near Edinburgh and the famous mountain of volcanic origin, Arthur’s Seat. Scotland’s rugged landscape – which has played an important role in many significant geological discoveries – was one factor that spurred the researcher’s passion for earth sciences. However, the second reason for choosing the field is more surprising. “It was Pokémon,” Walton acknowledges with a laugh. “The earlier games often involved rocks and the way in which life and geology are connected. This idea echoes throughout my research.”
The fact that he’s now conducting this research in the group led by ETH Professor Maria Schönbächler at the Institute of Geochemistry and Petrology is thanks to the partnership between the NOMIS Foundation and ETH. After completing his doctorate and working as a researcher at the University of Cambridge, he applied for the three- to four-year NOMIS-ETH fellowship and was accepted. “The fellowship gives me the freedom to explore ideas I’ve been thinking about for ten years. This chance to take risks and chase a vision is incredibly valuable,” Walton enthuses.
Cosmic dust: a free lunch for early life?
He’s convinced that COPL is the perfect place for his research. “The resources and expertise here are unique. Whether material sciences or information technology, findings from many fields are relevant when it comes to the search for the origin of life.”
In Schönbächler’s lab, he can study crucial samples: micrometeorites and cosmic dust that she was able to bring back from an expedition in Antarctica. Based on his research, Walton suspects these powdery extraterrestrial materials played a role in the formation of life. “Cosmic dust is everywhere – there will be some on the roof of your house, right now! It probably accumulated in certain places on early Earth. Crucially, cosmic dust is made up of the elements needed by life and, due to its unstable chemical form, may have easily broken down, offering something of a ‘free lunch’ for first life,” the researcher explains.