New projects and origin of life on Earth scenario

News, 28 June 2019

On 17 – 18 June 2019, the 50th meeting of the Programme Advisory Committee for Condensed Matter Physics was held. Members of the Committee considered information on the implementation of the recommendations of the previous PAC meeting, decisions taken at the previous meetings of the Scientific Council and the CP JINR. Reports on concluding themes and proposals for new projects were made.

PAC Member Prof. Raffaele Saladino (Tuscia University, Viterbo, Italy; left in the photo) made a scientific report “Emergence of life in formamide-based origin scenario”.

“You made your previous report two and a half years ago at the 43rd PAC meeting. Were new results obtained since then?”

“A new result is that an opportunity of synthesis of RNA fragments out of formamide was shown. Before that, we have shown that more complex molecules are formed out of formamide, nucleic basis, i.e. RNA constituents. That means that we construct chains, oligomers, consisting of numerous carbon atoms starting from one carbon atom. It is the first event ever in prebiotic chemistry of producing a functional molecule, and this is a truly significant result.”

“Is it possible to state that the hypothesis of such a way of life emergence on the Earth is fully proven?”

“It is not the full proof as far as the RNA is not the only molecule needed for the life emergence. But we now found out the operating scenario of its birth: we almost reached the study of RNA constituents but it is possible to extrapolate the process for the future development.”

“Do you plan to continue experiments at JINR accelerators?”

“Yes, I do. Facilities of the Joint Institute are extremely important for modelling solar wind and galactic radiation. It agrees with the history of emerging of our planet: starting from the Hadean (the most ancient period of the Earth’s existence, the first 600 million years – O. T.), when the magnetic field of the Earth was not still formed, and radiation strongly affected because solar wind achieved the planet’s surface.”

Several reports of the meeting were dedicated to the development of the IBR-2 reactor and its experimental environment. FLNP Director V. N. Shvetsov made a proposal to open a theme for the development of the project of a new neutron source in JINR. I pose my first question to PAC Chairman Dénes Nagy and ask him to comment on this proposal:

“We did not agree in the discussion on the IBR-2, FLNP, and other laboratories, but I see the point of your question. One of the major topics of the discussion was a new neutron source in JINR. We discussed in detail the possibility of starting now this theme for the development of the conceptual design of this facility for the implementation of which we need three years. It is only the first stage, a preparatory part of the preliminary stage of the facility creation. In the second part of this stage, a report on technical developments will be presented accompanied by “strong” science, and we constantly highlight this. However, I would like to specify that “strong” science for such a facility is not similar to, for example, NICA or even a new collider. We are not going to open a new Higgs boson, gravitation waves, or new exoplanets. It is simple to concentrate on one task in such projects. As for neutron and photon sources, cyclotrons, or lasers at free electrons, the scientific aspect suggests that it is necessary to correspond to the equipment level that will be used in 10,20, and even 30 years.

Nowadays, our primary objective is to develop the conceptual design in three years. It will be drafted in the Frank Laboratory of Neutron Physics. We recommended to FLNP to take this up. Of course, there are other themes as well that are partially connected with FLNP and LRB. Firstly, I would like to note the SOLARIS project in the frames of which JINR takes part in research at the cyclotron in Krakow. The development stage of this facility has been already concluded, it operates. We discussed the details of launching three new facilities at the cyclotron and made an offer to continue this process. We believe that it is crucially important to use this opportunity.”

Two LRB staff members presented their reports and LRB Director E. A. Krasavin told participants about activities of the working group for radiobiology and astrobiology carried out in the frames of the development of the strategic plan for the JINR long-range development.

We gave everything a favourable mark. All proposals for opening of new themes and prolongation of the existing ones were supported. All projects of the Laboratory are promising. The astrobiological projects were presented by A. Yu. Rozanov. It is research defining prebiotic compounds in meteorites that could be a source of the life emergence on the Earth or, at least, could give additional information about the life on the Earth. These are very important and interesting projects. One more project on medico-biological and radiation-genetic research is carried out at the DLNP Phasotron. I do not speak about clinical assessments but only about the scientific part, and this project is very successful. We supported prolongation of it for three years.

This time, the poster session provoked discussion…

Unfortunately, the number of posters this time was not large. There were only six posters, and the scientific level of some of them was not high. There was one really great presentation that got an award (Maxim Karpets “Investigation of thin layers of polystyrene-fullerene nano-compounds by neutron and X-ray reflectometry methods”), but this time we did not award encouraging prizes as far as some posters were at the low level and were not subject to discussion. Closing the meeting, we proposed to take actions for improvement of this situation and to allow not only young scientists but their senior colleagues in projects as well (of course, not on the competition basis) to take part in the poster session, and encourage young scientists and their supervisors to make their poster presentations at a good level. I hope that next time there will not be such a problem: to choose three reports out of six. It is ridiculous.”

“Members of the JINR Directorate actively participate in the PAC meeting. Did you feel their support?”

“Of course, we did. Our relations with heads of the Institute and the laboratories are fascinating. We obtain support in the evaluation of proposals. Moreover, our recommendations were also positively met. Sometimes PAC members are critical, and I think it is helpful. However, we need to admit that when we express some criticism we do it not against someone but for good sake. For the sake of JINR, laboratories, colleagues, and the international scientific community using the Institute’s facilities.”

Olga Tarantina, JINR Weekly Newspaper
Photos by Elena Puzynina