New applications for UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship invited

22 June 2012

Dr Nick Lane (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) addresses one of the most fundamental questions: how did complex life arise? He does so as the inaugural UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellow, a programme for which new applications are invited.

Less than three years after being appointed, Dr Lane now leads the UCL Research Frontiers programme on Origins of Life, which was recently awarded a c£250,000 Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant. The latest account of his work, Life: is it inevitable or just a fluke?, appears in New Scientist.

New applications are invited for the Fellowship.

Dr Lane reflects on his experience:

"My time as the first UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellow is drawing to an end, and it has been an immensely rich experience. More than that – it promises to continue, because ideas grow and become more conventionally fundable. This is just the beginning.

"The Fellowship gives researchers at UCL the opportunity to explore fundamental questions, ideas that are potentially transformative, but which are still, as yet, germinal. The award allows you to follow these ideas wherever they lead, in an intellectually open-ended framework that is rarely replicated by funding bodies.

"In my own case, I had a central, driving conception that biological energy was critical to some of the major transitions in evolution. Practically all cells conserve energy in a peculiar and counterintuitive fashion, by gradients of protons across membranes. We now know a great deal about how this odd process works mechanistically, but the question of why life evolved this way has been surprisingly overlooked.

"My main question related to the origin of complex life on Earth, and for that matter anywhere else in the universe. For more than two billion years, the Earth was dominated by bacteria, which despite their biochemical virtuosity show no tendency to become more complex in size or morphology. My hypothesis was – and still is – that the singular origin of the complex (eukaryotic) cell depended on a rare and stochastic association between two types of bacteria, one of which went on to become the mitochondria, the ‘power-packs’ of cells. All mitochondria retain a few genes, and this requirement could explain not only why bacteria can’t expand in size and complexity, but also why all eukaryotes have so many unique traits of their own, from sex to the nucleus. If I’m right, there are implications for health and medicine too – from fertility to ageing – most of which have barely been considered before.

"To date, I have attacked these questions theoretically, publishing eight primary papers, including papers in Nature and Science; but in pursuing this theme, a yet deeper question emerged: why do cells use proton gradients at all? The answer likely dates back to the origin of life itself. A focus on this question has helped bring researchers together from across UCL, within the framework of the UCL Research Frontiers programme, and has recently been rewarded with a three-year research grant from the Leverhulme Trust.

"That is the best legacy of the UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship. Rather than being obliged to focus on questions of immediate, if perhaps superficial, impact, the Fellowship allows you to think through a hypothesis, and its testable implications, to the point that it could be possible to refocus your entire career on the biggest and most compelling questions. If you had told me three years ago that I would finish my Fellowship with ongoing funding for a research project that explicitly tackles the origin of life, I would have been thrilled. I am thrilled! What better opportunity to pursue your scientific dreams than this? It would certainly not have happened without the Fellowship.

"Do not think of the UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship as an interlude in your career, but as a wonderful opportunity to focus on the driving questions that you always wanted to pursue, but never found the way."