John Sutherland

Integration of cellular subsystems at the origin of life
Group Leader page

The format of life; its integrated informational, catalytic and compartment-forming subsystems, the three joined by metabolism, provides some clues as to the chemical events that fashioned it. Thus, nucleic acids – most likely RNA – peptides and lipids must have been incorporated into nascent biological systems at some point. It was previously thought that incorporating them all at once was unlikely as it was imagined that different and mutually interfering chemistries would have been involved in making the various components. However, our recent work on the prebiotic origin of biological building blocks suggests that nucleotides, amino acids and lipids can all be assembled at the same time by very closely related chemistries and this supports the idea that RNA, peptides and lipids might have all have come together at the same time to make protocells – the question is how?

This project seeks to investigate synergies between RNA replication, (coded) peptide synthesis and vesicle function. We have already identified certain key aspects of the chemistry, but need to refine them and establish compatibilities and synergies as well as advancing our analytical capabilities to deal with increasingly complex systems. The idea is not to build a synthetic cell as many are trying to do, but to understand how the first protocells arose. That said, we anticipate that many of the problems we face are similar to those faced by the synthetic cell community and so we are maintaining close contacts with leaders in that field.

The work is expected to comprise a mix of synthesis, biophysical chemistry and analytical organic chemistry with scope for specialisation in one or more of these areas within a highly collaborative team.


J.D. Sutherland (2016)
The Origin of Life – Out of the Blue?
Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 55, 104-121.

J.D. Sutherland (2017)
Studies on the origin of life — the end of the beginning
Nature Rev. Chem. 1:0012, doi:10.1038/s41570-016-0012