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Scientist seeks answers on complex life and origin of species thanks to UCL award

16 July 2010

There is a big hole at the very heart of biology, and it concerns the origin of all complex life on earth – why our planet erupted with life, and why humans turn out to be so closely related to mushrooms at the level of our cells, says Dr Nick Lane, UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, who will now seek to solve this mystery, with potentially groundbreaking implications for the ageing process and the origins of the species itself, as part of a UCL initiative to enable researchers to try to make some of the biggest scientific discoveries free of the constraints set by funding rules and peer review. The award will provide a Reader’s salary for three years (about £150K in total) and will enable Dr Lane to develop his research proposal, “Chemiosmosis and the Foundations of Complex Life.”

Dr Lane will seek to answer such questions as why complex cells have evolved only once in four billion years, why they share many unexpected traits like sex and senescence, and – if these traits offer a selective advantage – why bacteria do not take advantage. According to current thinking, answers to these questions should arise from genetics, but a narrowly genetic perspective suggests that complex life should evolve repeatedly. All life depends on chemiosmosis – the process by which all cells power themselves by an unexpected electrical mechanism – for energy generation, and Dr Lane will seek to uncover the broader implications of chemiosmosis for evolution.

The way in which chemiosmosis is controlled might explain not only the singular origin of the complex cell, Dr Lane believes, but also many of its unexpected traits, from sex and sexes to ageing and death, even perhaps the origin of species.

“Peter Mitchell won the Nobel Prize in 1978 for his discovery of chemiosmosis, which has been called the most revolutionary idea in biology since Darwin but the broader implications of chemiosmosis for the evolution of complexity are largely unknown and unexplored,” argues Dr Lane. A re-examination of the physiology of cells and organisms in this new light could have major implications across biology and medicine with possible practical applications ranging from wildlife conservation, plant breeding, revival of extinct species, cloning technology, fertility, global population movements and health, medical research and research into ageing.”

Dr Lane’s project is the first to be funded by the Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship, an initiative set up in December last year by UCL Provost Professor Malcolm Grant, to fund researchers whose ideas challenge the norm and have the potential to substantially change the way we think about an important subject. The scheme is unique in having no deadlines or peer review, and few rules.

Honorary Professor Donald Braben, UCL Earth Sciences, who led the selection team and has pioneered the award, says: The Venture Research Fellowship is probably unique. Almost all the great scientific discoveries came unexpectedly from the work of a relatively few pioneering researchers such as Planck, Einstein, Avery, Townes, Crick and Watson, Huxley, Perutz, and perhaps 300 others of similar calibre - the “Planck Club”. Many of their discoveries were recognised by Nobel Prizes or other prestigious awards. However, their modern successors are not as free, and constraints such as peer review in particular inhibit challenges to conventional wisdom. The UCL Provost Professor Malcolm Grant therefore announced last December that he would finance the new Fellowship for UCL researchers who needed freedom to explore new ideas that might eventually qualify them for membership of a 21st century Planck Club. Selection for the Fellowship would have few rules, and no peer review.

“My team has received some 30 proposals that would grace any Research Council portfolio. However, Dr Lane’s was exceptionally insightful, and his open-ended and fresh approaches to key questions in biology could lead to the unpredictable and transformative discoveries typical of Planck-Club research. For these reasons alone, it would be most unlikely that the mainstream agencies would fund his proposal. Furthermore, his re-examination of the physiology of cells and organisms could have major implications across biology and medicine.”

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost for Research, said: "UCL’s research strategy commits our university to applying its expertise to the resolution of the world’s major problems – what we call the Grand Challenges, such as global health, sustainable cities, intercultural interaction and human wellbeing. While interdisciplinary collaboration is central to this effort, we recognise that lone scholarship has a crucial role to play.

“The UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship is a novel mechanism through which truly exceptional thinkers will be given the opportunity to transcend conventional research constraints. The outcomes are unpredictable and, for that reason, unusually promising. The ultimate purpose, however, is clear: to transform knowledge into wisdom, and by applying that wisdom, to elevate humanity’s circumstances.”

Notes for Editors

1. For more information and images, contact Dominique Fourniol in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9728, mobile: +44 (0)7881 833 274, e-mail: d.fourniol@ucl.ac.uk