UCL Earth Sciences


GEOL0059 Origin of Life and Exobiology

This a module will address theories of the origin of life and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.

Coordinator: Dr Dominic Papineau

Module details
TitleOrigin of Life and Exobiology
UG CodeGEOL0059
CoordinatorDr Dominic Papineau
Other Contributors 
Written Exam 

30% Report (2 x 1000 words)

45% Coursework (3 x 500-1500 words)

25% Take-home examination (1 x 2000 words)

Maths & Stats Content and Requirement 
Total Number of Hours of Student Work188 hours
Hours of Lectures/Seminars10 hours
Hours of Practicals/Problem Classes10 hours
Hours of Tutorials10 hours
Days of Fieldwork0

The module will give students the tools they need to develop critical thinking about the quality and robustness of evidence for early life on the Archean and Proterozoic Earth, theoretical models for the origin of life, analytical techniques to search for biosignatures of ancient life and extra-terrestrial life, and lastly, Solar System locations where life could exist or could have existed. The module will run as five series of three lectures followed by one practical, each lasting 2 weeks, and thus organized into five main topics:

  • Introduction to biochemistry and lowT geochemical reactions in the origin of life
  • Prebiotic chemistry in nature,
  • introduction to biosignatures and to organic geochemistry
  • Theories on the origin of life and life in extreme environments Biosignatures in Archean and Proterozoic rocks as analogues for exobiology
  • Evidence for water on Mars, from orbiters and landers and habitability in the Solar System



The module will give advance knowledge to the students about the theories on the origin of life and how the geological record can be used as a platform for future exobiology studies on other ancient planetary surfaces.

Students will learn to develop critical thinking about the compelling nature of claims of evidence of early life on the Archean and Proterozoic Earth and about theoretical models of the origin of life. Students will also learn about analytical techniques used to search for biosignatures in rocks, about locations in the Solar System where evidence of past life might be preserved in rocks and ice, and how analytical techniques could be used to search for life in these remote extra-terrestrial locations.


The module has the following learning outcomes:

  • Knowledge of fundamental aspects of cosmochemistry, organic molecules, biochemistry, and microbial metabolic pathways relevant to the origin of life
  • Knowledge, including some practical knowledge, of key chemical reactions investigated in prebiotic chemistry and theories on the origin of life
  • Knowledge of various types of biosignatures in sedimentary rocks and of observations of a few on Mars
  • An understanding of how Precambrian geology and the evolution of biogeochemical cycles inform the field of exobiology
  • Knowledge, including some practical knowledge, of various analytical techniques relevant for biosignature and life detection in exobiology
  • Knowledge of evidence for water and habitability on Mars, including some biosignatures in meteorites, and icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn
  • Some practical knowledge on the scientific method, data acquisition, and interpretation, the role of peer review, and the process of efficiently writing scientific research