The Boundaries of Life (BoL) Initiative seeks to uncover highly divergent forms of life on earth and in doing so to

advance microbiology and fundamental unanswered questions in biology, including: 1) What are the

fundamental parameters and bounds of life? 2) Has life originated more than once? 3) How likely is life to

exist elsewhere in the universe?


The BoL team brings together a group of physicists and biologists from Stanford University, California Institute

of Technology and Global Viral with expertise in specimen collection, development of assays for studying

microscopic life, and the fundamental study of the chemistry and physics of microbial-scale life. The project’s

primary objectives are to chart the currently unmapped diversity of nucleic acid-based life and to develop and deploy assays for the detection of shadow life in a range of specimens from earth. 

Phase I End Date : August, 2017

Phase II End Date: September 2020

Executive summary for BoL Phase II

The past few decades have seen a tremendous increase in our understanding of biology and the processes necessary for sustaining life. The advent of new, high-throughput technologies like next-generation sequencing now enable studies of entire genomes and transcriptomes of organisms, from bacteria to human, in unprecedented detail. In spite of these advances, a few fundamental questions in biology, some that have fascinated mankind for generations, still remain unanswered- Is the biology we know and understand universal, or are there other kinds of life? Is there more than one tree of life? Is there life that we haven’t discovered yet? Motivated by the lack of answers to these questions, we launched the Boundaries of Life (BoL) Research Initiative, which brings together a highly accomplished, interdisciplinary team of scientists that will tackle these questions head-on. The main objectives of the initiative are to: a) Develop assays and methods to discover novel ‘shadow’ life; b) Transform BoL and related research into a robust and mature field of scientific inquiry by recruiting and training the next generation of scientists; and c) Develop a strong funder base that is interested in furthering the initiative’s science and community objectives.

Phase I of BoL (2014 launch) saw the development of a number of new assays and methods, including high-throughput electron microscopy, ‘mini’ metagenomics pipelines that allow detailed analysis of a few cells, phage population surveys, mass spectrometric surveys for Xeno nucleic acids (XNAs) and DNA extraction methods that describe component species in microbial communities at an unprecedented level of resolution. The initiative is now transitioning to Phase II work, where the team will primarily focus on the chemistry of life and undertake metabolomics related studies. Besides science, the BoL team will build collaborations with the wider community of scientists and start assembling a strong funder base.

Participating institutions (& PIs): Global Viral (Shailesh Date, Nathan Wolfe), Stanford University (Steve Quake), Caltech (Grant Jensen, Rob Phillips), Joint Genome Institute & NASA/JPL.

Partner lab sites: 


Global Viral (GV), previously known as Global Viral Forecasting Institute (GVFI), was initially founded as an organization focused on the study of infectious diseases, their transmission between animals and humans, and the risk involved with their global spread. However, these areas of research are now shifted to Metabiota, an independent company that focuses on risk analysis associated with such diseases.

GV has now focuses its research on studying the diversity, ecology and evolution of microbes. Our legacy, however, is very important to us. To access information about our legacy programs, some of which may no longer be current, please use the links below: