The chemical origins of molecular biology

Lead Research Organisation: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Abstract

An English chemist has found the hidden gateway to the RNA world, the chemical milieu from which the first forms of life are thought to have emerged on earth some 3.8 billion years ago. He has solved a problem that for 20 years has thwarted researchers trying to understand the origin of life — how the building blocks of RNA, called nucleotides, could have spontaneously assembled themselves in the conditions of the primitive earth. The discovery, if correct, should set researchers on the right track to solving many other mysteries about the origin of life. It will also mean that for the first time a plausible explanation exists for how an information-carrying biological molecule could have emerged through natural processes from chemicals on the primitive earth.
Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, 13th May 2009We continue to work to extend these findings.

Technical Summary

A true understanding of biology must include knowledge of its chemical origin, and comprehending the chemical events that gave biology its foundations – cellular format, the central dogma, the genetic code – is therefore a fundamental aspect of natural science. Furthermore, understanding the way in which extant biology arose can inform the design of synthetic biologies. We are interested in using the tools of organic chemistry (synthesis and analysis) to uncover prebiotically plausible syntheses of the informational, catalytic and compartment–forming molecules necessary for the emergence of life. We have previously demonstrated the constitutional self-assembly of pyrimidine ribonucleotides from mixtures of simple building blocks, and we are now exploring similar systems chemistry approaches to the purine ribonucleotides, and ways of assembling RNA from these ribonucleotides with regiocontrol of the internucleotide phosphodiester linkage. We are also interested in the chemical origins of genetically encoded translation, and the abiogenesis of lipids.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Collaborative Studies Supplement
Amount $100,000 (USD)
Organisation Simons Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 05/2016 
End 03/2018
 
Description EC - Marie Curie Fellowship (Bonfio) Repeating cycles of chemically-driven RNA replication within model protocells
Amount € 224,934 (EUR)
Funding ID H2020-MSCA-IF-2018-839899 
Organisation Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Global
Start 04/2019 
End 03/2021
 
Description Equipment Award
Amount $311,499 (USD)
Organisation Simons Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 01/2017 
End 12/2017
 
Description Harvard-Cambridge Scholarship - Magnani
Amount £16,000 (GBP)
Organisation Harvard-Cambridge Scholarship 
Sector Academic/University
Country United States
Start 10/2015 
End 06/2016
 
Description Life Investigators Award
Amount $2,000,000 (USD)
Organisation Simons Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 06/2018 
End 05/2023
 
Description Simons Collaboration on the Origin of Life
Amount $1,000,000 (USD)
Funding ID 290362 
Organisation Simons Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 06/2013 
End 05/2018
 
Description Assembly of biopolymers from building blocks 
Organisation Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU Munich)
Department Faculty of Physics
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Scientific
Collaborator Contribution Scientific
Impact N/A yet
Start Year 2015
 
Description Astronomy Cambridge 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Experimental photochemistry correlating quantum yields with stellar fluxes.
Collaborator Contribution Measurements of stellar fluxes incident on exoplanets.
Impact https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/8/eaar3302.short
Start Year 2018
 
Description Experimental and theoretical nucleoside photochemistry 
Organisation Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic
Department Institute of Biophysics
Country Czech Republic 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Scientific
Collaborator Contribution Scientific
Impact N/A yet
Start Year 2014
 
Description Origin of dissipative energy processes in biology 
Organisation Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Country Israel 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution scientific
Collaborator Contribution scientific
Impact N/A yet
Start Year 2014
 
Description Vesicle formation 
Organisation University of Southern Denmark
Country Denmark 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Scientific
Collaborator Contribution Scientific
Impact Authors A N Albertsen, C D Duffy, J D Sutherland, P-A Monnard Title Self-assembly of phosphate amphiphiles in mixtures of prebiotically plausible surfactants. Journal Astrobiology Volume 14 Issue 6 Pages (x-y) 462-72 Date of Publication Jun/2014 Data Source pubmed
Start Year 2013
 
Description Interview leading to article in Quanta Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview leading to article in Quanta Magazine
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description A Recipe for Primordial Life at RS 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 'A Recipe for Primordial Life' (Sutherland lab members) exhibit at Guildhall and Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Article in Chemical & Engineering News 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact NA
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Burkett Lecture DePauw University USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact 25th April 2019: Burkett Lecture to a general audience at DePauw University, USA
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Freie University Berlin 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Type Of Presentation Keynote/Invited Speaker
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact NA
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description Interview leading to article in Harvard Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview leading to article in Harvard Magazine
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Interview leading to article in The Scientist Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview leading to article in The Scientist Magazine
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description LifeLab 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact LifeLab in September (Sutherland lab members)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description MRC Festival 'Recipe for Life' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact MRC Festival 'Recipe for Life' preview event (Sutherland lab members)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Radio Interview on Radio Cambridgeshire 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact NA
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Trinity College Scientific Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 17th October 2019: Lecture to a general audience at Trinity College Scientific Society
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019