The Earth was formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. The first signs of life on our planet emerged soon after (in terms of the Earth's history). However, the conditions back then were very different from now, as there was no oxygen in the atmosphere, the Earth was covered in water and the Earth's crust was extremely hot. One of the central questions in Prof. Dr. William Martin's group is to explore how life could emerge under these conditions.
The international team is honing in on three basic properties shared by all life forms. First, life uses energy from its environment to trigger chemical reactions. Second, carbon-based molecules play a key role in these reactions. Third, the reactions are driven by catalysts that accelerate and control the reactions.
Under certain, favourable environmental conditions - such as those in the Earth's primordial crust - the central molecules of life, including amino acids and sugars, must have spontaneously formed and organised themselves into more complex systems - from autocatalytic networks to a complete cell. The catalysts present at the time were a key component of these starting conditions.
In the research project now funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, researchers from Düsseldorf, Mülheim/Ruhr (the group of Dr. Harun Tüysüz) and Strasbourg (the group of Prof. Dr. Joseph Moran) will use laboratory experiments to study catalysts found both in minerals and in living cells. Microbes still use these catalysts today to synthesise central molecules from simple compounds such as hydrogen (H2), carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen (N2). Prof. Martin says: "We want to study the catalysts and conditions that supported life at the very beginning and to close the gap between geological and biological processes".
Martina Preiner, an MSc chemist who pioneered the project in Martin's team, explains the work ahead: "Together with our colleagues in Mülheim, we will synthetise metal compounds that existed in the Earth's crust 4 billion years ago. We will use these to catalyse reactions between carbon dioxide, nitrogen and hydrogen at high temperatures and pressures. Our results so far indicate that this could lead us to central molecules of life." The collaborative partners in Strasbourg will focus on the chemical mechanisms underlying the reactions.
"Life" funding initiative by the Volkswagen Foundation
Based on the question "What is life?", the Volkswagen Foundation has made funding available for an area at the interface between natural and life sciences. The initiative was set up in 2015 and funds research projects for a maximum duration of five years.
Prof. Martin's project application was successful in the very first year of the initiative with another project. There, the role of DNA recombination during evolution was examined. The recently approved project "Forming catalysts: A basic principle of deep chemistry, life chemistry and life", which commences this fall, re-enacts processes at the time before evolution started. The Strasbourg, Mülheim and Düsseldorf teams will each receive EUR 500,000 of the €1.5M grant.