AWARDS and ESTEEM
I am working on the evolutionary importance of biological energy transduction, specifically chemiosmosis, by which cells generate energy in the form of ATP by way of a gradient of protons across a membrane. Called ‘the most counter-intuitive idea in biology since Darwin’, the mechanism has been elucidated at atomic resolution, yet its evolutionary significance has received little attention. I am focusing on three major transitions in evolution: the origin of life itself; the origin of the complex (eukaryotic) cell; and the evolution of the major traits shared by all eukaryotic cells, in particular sex, sexes, speciation and senescence. I hypothesise that chemiosmosis played a critical role in each transition.
The origin of life
Chemiosmosis was strictly necessary for the origin of life; scalar chemical reactions cannot provide enough ATP for growth in the absence of photosynthesis or oxygen. Chemiosmosis does, as gradients permit substoichiometric conservation of energy, thereby transcending chemistry. Some hydrothermal vents provide natural proton gradients, equivalent to those in modern living cells, potentially explaining why proton gradients are universal across life. I am leading a research initiative across UCL. We have built an ‘origin-of-life’ reactor and are now undertaking a detailed programme of experimental research into the origin of life.
The origin of the eukaryotic cell
All complex life on earth is composed of eukaryotic cells. The eukaryotic cell arose from prokaryotes just once in 4 billion years, via a rare endosymbiosis between two prokaryotes. By controlling chemiosmosis across an extremely wide area of internal membranes, the tiny endosymbiont genomes enabled a 200,000-fold leap in the host cell’s genome size. This in turn underpinned eukaryotic genome complexity and the origin of complex life. From this perspective, I am developing new theoretical research into the origin of the eukaryotic cell, cell cycle, meiosis and sex.
The evolution of basal eukaryotic traits
Complex eukaryotic cells cannot exist without highly reduced mitochondrial genomes, but the requirement for interaction between nuclear and mitochondrial genomes means that they must co-adapt for cells to survive. However, the two genomes differ radically in their tempo and mode of evolution. Some of the most basic eukaryotic traits, including two sexes, speciation and senescence, may be a consequence of the need to co-adapt genomes. I am working with mathematicians to develop theoretical models and plan related laboratory studies, and planning an experimental programme.
LECTURING and SUPERVISING
Contribution to Life Sciences undergraduate courses:
Supervision of students
TALKS and MEDIA APPEARANCES
ACADEMIC LECTURES and SEMINARS
WIDER IMPACT OF RESEARCH / PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
I am the first recipient of the UCL Provost’s Venture Research Prize. This unconventional prize, reported widely in the media, “offers academics the freedom to explore paradigm-shifting ideas”, being awarded to “exceptional thinkers whose ideas challenge the norm and have the potential to substantially change the way we think about an important subject.”
My research is on role of energy in the major transitions of evolution, and my publications in Nature and elsewhere have been reported widely on radio, television and online media (BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service, BBC4, BBC News, The Guardian Science Weekly, Nature podcast, US National Public Radio, etc.). My work was recently featured in the ‘Leading Edge’ section of the 2011 UCL Undergraduate Prospectus and by UCL Pi Magazine.
My books have sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide, and have been translated into 20 languages. Half the applicants to study biology or biochemistry at UCL cite my books as an inspiration. My latest book, Life Ascending, won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2010, being described by the judges as “a beautifully written and elegantly structured book that challenges us with some tough science, explaining it in such a way that we feel like scientists ourselves, unfolding the mysteries of life.” The award meant that GEE is the only department in the world to house two winners of the Science Book Prize, Steve Jones having won the prize for The Language of the Genes in 1994. I was previously shortlisted for the Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2006 and The Times Higher Young Academic Author of the Year in 2005, and my books have been named among the books of the Year by Nature, New Scientist, The Economist, The Times, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times and The Independent, who described me as “one of the most exciting science writers of our age.”
I regularly contribute feature articles to Nature and New Scientist, and have spoken at various literary festivals, including the British Science Festival, London Science Festival, Edinburgh Festival, and the Hay Festival, as well as numerous schools and universities around the world. I was distinguished as the 2011 Brockington Visitor to Queen’s University, Canada.
I am acting as scientific consultant to the BBC2 Wonders of Life series (presented by Brian Cox) and have been interviewed as an expert on cells for other programmes including The Gene Code and Battle for the Cell (both on BBC4).
PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY EXPERIENCE
Strategic Director, Adelphi Medi Cine, 1999 – 2002. Chief medical communications strategist in global pharmaceutical marketing campaigns developing interactive multimedia health-economic programs to guide health policy on diabetes, influenza, haemophilia, HRT and infectious disease.
Senior Writer/Producer, Medi Cine International 1996 – 1999. Developing programmes in a variety of media, including, CD-ROM, DVD, video, slide, web and print; CME program through Johns Hopkins University. Won several prizes in international film festivals, including Gold and Silver awards in the Prix Leonardo, and Silver ‘Hugo’ in the Intercom Chicago International Film Festival.
Medical Writer, Oxford Clinical Communications 1995 – 1996
PhD, Royal Free Hospital Medical School, University of London 1991 – 1995: In vivo studies of ischaemia-reperfusion injury in hypothermically stored rabbit renal autograft
BSc (Hons) Biochemistry, Imperial College, University of London 1985 – 1988.
Raising two small and energetic boys (temporarily eclipsing most of the following):
Rock-climbing and mountaineering: numerous foolish exploits on rock, ice and mountain peaks across the UK, Europe and America; finding wild camp sites
Fiddle player in traditional Irish band, Probably Not, playing in London pubs and folk venues
Literature, history, cooking, wines, exploring Romanesque churches