Prebiotic chemistry and the origin of life
I did my PhD at University College London with Matthew Powner, and in our lab, one of the main interests was in understanding how the building blocks of ribonucleic acid (RNA) could be assembled from simple molecules that are thought to have been present on the early Earth. My PhD was focused on studying a prebiotically plausible way of making phosphorylated ribonucleotides and amino acids. My main project, which was compiled into two publications, focused on getting closer to a one-pot reaction making pentose aminooxazolines, one of the key intermediates in the synthesis of ribonucleotides, by solving the need for spatial and temporal separation of the two and three carbon sugars (feedstock molecules) and finding a prebiotically plausible way of incorporating phosphates into these intermediates while working in water. I also worked on integrating this work with amino acid and other metabolite synthesis, in line with a systems chemistry approach to the origin of life.
Canonical amino acids and the origin of their use in biology
After my PhD, I had the chance to work with Jim Cleaves at the Earth Life Science Institute in Tokyo, doing a short computational biology project there with a large international team. The project built upon a previous publication aimed at understanding why we use the 20 amino acids (canonical amino acids) that we do in biology, when there are many other options out there. They had looked at how well our 20 amino acids covered the chemical space (here defined as charge, hydrophobicity and mass ranges) compared to some other 20 amino acids (selected at random from a large pool of possible amino acids). In this project, we explored how well subsets of those 20 amino acids vs smaller sets of random amino acids cover the chemical space, and found that they did so particularly well, giving those canonical sets an adaptive advantage.