CeNS Center for NanoScience LMU Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
CeNS HomepageLMU Homepage
Home  >  Careers

PhD positions in Origin of Life Research

We will bring together both young and experienced researchers to form a unique and well-balanced cross-disciplinary network for experimentally driven Origins of Life research centered in Munich. To test hypotheses of how life could have emerged, we will use the recent increase in available information on the initial boundary conditions of early Earth from astronomy, geology, and chemistry to establish plausible boundary conditions for lab experiments. The proposed experiments focus on fundamental issues, centered around the question of how early chemical networks and non-equilibrium conditions could drive primitive molecular-level evolutionary processes. The experiments range from the origin of molecules, including their long-term survival in rocks or meteorites and volcanic scenarios of molecular synthesis, to the autonomous polymerization and replication of oligonucleotides, the origin of the genetic code, the role of freeze-thaw cycles, mechanisms to amplify chirality, connections to existing metabolic networks and the non-equilibrium chemistry and physics to form, divide and control protocells. We pursue a bottom-up approach with the ultimate long-term goal to reconstruct life-like molecular systems in the lab under geologically plausible conditions. The projects roughly follow a time line of molecular evolution, beginning at molecules from space, and proceeding synthesis on Earth, replication, translation, early metabolism and protocells.

Project 1: Catalytic activity of water-air interfaces for prebiotic reactions

Foams are ubiquitous wherever gas and liquid are brought in contact at high Reynolds numbers, for example during gas injections in hydrothermal or volcanic environments. Foams can be stabilized by surfactants and offer large surface-to-volume ratios for heterogeneous catalysis at the interfaces. We will investigate surface-catalysis for two archetypal reactions: (i) the surface-enhanc­ement of the polymerization and replication of genetic molecules and (ii) geometry dependent molecular self-organization and pattern formation from surface-catalyzed reaction-diffusion. We aim to combine two central processes of early life: replication and compartmentalization.

Project 2: DNA replication and transport in volcanic matrices by UV and temperature gradients

Volcanic matrices to host autonomous DNA replication The emergence of life likely occurred in contact with rocks and minerals. We will study biochemical replication experiments in the complex matrix of fresh, partially glassy volcanic samples, and their hydrothermally altered counterparts that include clays and zeolithes. We will use geomaterials from both recent volcanic eruptions as well as synthesized glasses to reconstruct the conditions of early Earth. The driving force for replication and accumulation are thermal gradients. We expect a rich interplay between activating surface chemistry, volume compartmentalization and thermally driven surface flows. Will the realistic settings enhance or inhibit the replication reactions?

Project 3: Genetic code from affinities of aminoacyl adenylates to RNA motifs

The genetic code is a fundamental mechanism of life and links a three letter base code to an amino acid. Its structure suggests that an origin by direct binding. Based on the mechanism of present-day proteins, we will start from an AMP-amino acid intermediates and probe their affinity to tRNA precursor anticodon pocket structures. We will use a twofold experimental approach to first measure its affinity to candidate tRNA anticodon structures and then screen them with a reactivity-based high-throughput sequencing platform. We aim to prove or disprove variants of the stereochemical theories of the origin of the genetic code.

The proposed projects have been jointly designed by two PIs with complementary expertise, who will supervise two PhD students working on joint project. The students will be connected through a graduate research and training network designed to make the students and PIs familiar with the often complex and multi-faceted details of the Origin of Life question.

Requirements: We are looking for highly motivated and skilled PhD-candidates that integrate nicely in our open, flat-hierarchy work environment. Knowledge in basic programming (Python, Labview) and non-equilibrium & bio-physics are required.

Link to Prof. Braun's webpage: Opens external link in new windowhttp://www.biosystems.physik.lmu.de/index.html