Research intelligence: In search of Chimerical Eve

A UCL fellowship has given a top scientist the freedom to research the origins of complex life. Rose Wilkinson reports

January 7, 2010

If you were given £150,000 and three years to do whatever research you wanted - the more open-ended the better - how would you use it?

Nick Lane, recipient of the inaugural University College London provost's venture research fellowship, faces such a happy conundrum.

The fellowship was set up by Malcolm Grant, UCL's provost, to provide an opportunity for scholars to pursue some of the biggest scientific challenges free from the constraints and burdens of funding rules.

Two months after the fellowship was awarded, Dr Lane has a clear idea about what his blue-skies project will involve.

His research has focused for some time on a theory about what caused complex life to arise on Earth - the "hydrogen hypothesis" first put forward a decade ago by William F. Martin, professor of botany at Dusseldorf University.

"The basic idea is that it was a chimeric event: there was a fusion between two types of bacteria, which gave rise to a bacterial cell with other bacteria inside it," Dr Lane explained.

It is this chimeric event that he will investigate over the next three years.

Dr Lane thinks that all complex life on Earth arose from a single ancestor as a result of this fusion about 2 billion years ago.

"That ancestor arose only once in 4 billion years of life on Earth, which makes it seem like some kind of freak event," he said. "The big question is why?"

Dr Lane, who studied biochemistry at Imperial College London in the 1980s and was awarded a PhD by the Royal Free Hospital Medical School, University of London, in the early 1990s, said he already has some ideas about what happened at the beginning of complex life on Earth. Now he has been given the time and freedom to test his theories.

He hopes to show that by reproducing sexually, complex cells gave themselves a stronger chance of survival, and to prove that it pays to have two sexes. "If 99 per cent of offspring die if reproduction is clonal and 98 per cent die if it's sexual, then you've just doubled your chances of survival," he said.

Another idea that he hopes to test is the chimeric evolutionary theory. If all complex life arose from a single bacterium, how did it expand in size and complexity?

"The only way is through some kind of fusion of cells, but it needs to be shown that this was the case," he said.

The venture research scheme was founded by Don Braben, honorary professor in the department of earth sciences at UCL, who was also involved in selecting Dr Lane's proposal for the prize.

It was several decades ago that he envisaged the scheme, and he set up an early version of it in 1980 with funding from the oil firm BP. The scheme ran for ten years before the company withdrew its support. Now, 20 years later, it has been revived in its new form.

Blue skies or bust

Professor Braben maintained that supporting blue-skies research was as crucial as ever, describing the trend for funding work with specified outcomes as "a recipe for stagnation".

Highlighting the requirement that academics produce an assessment of the likely impact of their work in research council grant applications, he said: "When Watson and Crick discovered DNA's double-helix structure, nobody said: 'What's going to be the impact of this work when you've finished it?'

"My scheme is intended to aid great scientists with discoveries that might win Nobel prizes."

Professor Braben said that about 30 proposals had competed for the UCL fellowship, but that Dr Lane's was the best fit with the aims of the scheme. "He satisfied the criteria. There's no one else doing this sort of thing anywhere in the world."

Dr Lane, a founding member of the UCL Consortium for Mitochondrial Research, has published several books in the field, including Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (2002), Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life (2005) and Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (2009).

Stressing the uniqueness and significance of his research, Professor Braben said: "This is a very, very big deal. I really think that Nick is of the calibre to win a Nobel prize, which is why I recommended him to the provost. He is an amazing scientist."

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