The study thrusts one of America's most prestigious universities into the growing, politically charged debate over an alternative to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.
Opponents of the theory of evolution said Harvard's research project is proof that science has yet to disprove alternative theories, including the idea of "intelligent design", which is popular with America's religious conservatives.
Proponents of intelligent design argue that nature is so complex it could not have occurred by random natural selection, as held by Darwin's 1859 theory of evolution, and so must be the work of an unnamed "intelligent cause".
President George Bush entered the debate this month when he said he believed intelligent design should be taught in schools along with evolution theory so people could better understand the argument.
The study will seek answers to
longtime queries on evolution
At Harvard, the "Origins of Life in the Universe" study will cross various disciplines of biology, chemistry and astronomy to seek answers to longtime questions about evolution, a Harvard official said on Monday.
Harvard tried to downplay the timing of the project, saying it was not in response to the debate over intelligent design theory, which has attracted so much attention that it was the cover story of Time magazine this month.
"This is not something that began recently or something that began in reaction to what's going on in the larger
environment," said Harvard spokesman B D Colen. "It's a project that began because scientists are seeking answers to some of the biggest questions ever posed."
But opponents of evolution say the project seems to indicate that science has yet to fully prove Darwin's theory.
"This is ... a stunning admission that the current theories do not explain it, and it has not refuted the idea that things are the product of intelligent cause," said John West, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a think tank that backs intelligent design theory.
"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention"
The Discovery Institute advocates that schools teach scientific criticisms of Darwin's theories.
The Harvard project, in its early stages, will receive initial funding from the university and raise money from other organisations.
Harvard declined to comment on how much it planned to pay for the project, but the Boston Globe newspaper reported it would spend $1 million annually over the next few years.
David Liu, a chemistry professor at Harvard, said in the newspaper that while living systems are complex, science should provide the answers.
"My expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention," Liu was quoted as saying.