UCL Department of Biochemical Engineering


Biochemical Engineering academics partners in £3m BBSRC project

8 October 2020

Dr Stefanie Frank, Professor John Ward and Professor Nicolas Szita are investigators in a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council grant looking at look at the “Origins of Biology: How energy flow structures metabolism and heredity at the origin of life."

Biochemical engineering researchers at fume hood

Steffi, John and Nicolas will be three of the nine investigators in the projecin which they will apply synthetic biology and microfluidic technologies to help study energy flows and metabolism in microorganisms.

The Project Lead PI is Prof Nick Lane from GEE (Genetics, Evolution and Environment) in Biosciences UCL.  Nick is a Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry with a longstanding research goal to understand the chemistry leading up to and at the origin of life on earth and has written several popular science books around this area and on mitochondria.

How did life arise from abiotic precursors? Because life seems to have little to say about the time before its own emergence, the study of abiogenesis demands an examination of prebiotic chemistry and the naturally occurring conditions under which modern carbon-based biochemistry could have emerged. Building on the 'metabolism-first' theory that energy flow in the form of dynamic proton gradients across inorganic barriers could ultimately yield complex organics including the first polymers and proto-membranes, this project seeks to integrate computational modelling and experimental chemistry to systematically test conditions that could favour the emergence of life, including those similar to hydrothermal vents. The fundamental discoveries made here have broad range of potential long-term influence in other fields including in the design and manufacture of synthetic protocells and the development of metabolomic biomarkers of health across the lifecourse.

This project is a collaboration between four Divisions at UCL and Birkbeck College.

The origin of life is one of the biggest questions in all of science, yet until recently the biosciences have had surprisingly little input - an important gap. We are delighted that the BBSRC is backing this ambitious project to understand the fundamental driving forces that gave rise to cells and still shape how organisms function today. 
Professor Nick Lane, project lead. 

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