October 2009: Inaugural UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship

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 & 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 UCL Provost’s Venture Research Fellowship will provide a Reader’s salary for three years (about £150,000 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.”

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