The origin of life in alkaline hydrothermal vents

Theme: Biodiversity & Ecology

Primary Supervisor:

Nick Lane

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

John Ward

Biochemical Engineering, UCL

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Additional Supervisor(s):

Project Description:

Alkaline hydrothermal vents have many properties that make them analogous, and arguably homologous, to ancient autotrophs growing from the H2/CO2 redox couple, notably methanogens and acetogens. We have built a series of small continuous-flow bench-top reactors to simulate the far-from-equilibrium conditions in alkaline hydrothermal vents, notably proton, thermal and redox gradients, as well as the action of Fe(Ni)S catalysts.

We hope to recapitulate the intermediary metabolism of methanogens under abiotic conditions, including synthesis of amino acids, fatty acids, sugars and nucleotides, and the active concentration and polymerization of monomers, driven by simple thioesters and activated phosphates such as methyl thioacetate and acetyl phosphate.

We are a small research group running parallel projects on different aspects of abiogenesis under these conditions. We are also planning to develop a high-pressure version of the reactor. The PhD project would involve analytical methods including GC-MS and HPLC to detect small organics.

Policy Impact of Research:

The origin of life is a major unsolved problem in science.

This project pioneers an experimental reactor that could provide concrete answers, with implications for energy security and global warming: proton gradients could drive the reduction of CO2, combining carbon capture with production of synthetic gasoline.

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