Matthew Powner

University College London

Date: Thursday, June 16, 2022
Talk Time: 10:45 am - 11:10 am
Talk Title: Nitriles, Peptides, Cofactors and the Origins of Life

I was born in Wensleydale, North Yorkshire, UK, in 1981. I obtained a first-class master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Manchester in 2005, where I was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry prize, the Degussa award, the Sigma-Aldrich prize, the Glaxo prize, the Eric Braithwaite prize, the Swan prize, and the Merck Sharp & Dohme award. I then completed a medicinal chemistry internship at AstraZeneca, Alderley Park, before returning to Manchester to complete my Ph.D. in 2009, and a short EPSRC Doctoral Prize postdoctoral fellowship with John Sutherland FRS. In 2009 I was awarded a Harvard Research Fellowship to work with Nobel laureate Jack Szostak FRS at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, USA.

I returned to the U.K. in 2011, joining UCL as a lecturer in the chemistry department, where I am currently Professor of Organic Chemistry and an Investigator of the Simons Foundation Collaboration on the Origins of Life.

I have been awarded various prizes and fellowships in recognition of my research, including the ISSOL Stanley Miller Award, 2011, the SET for Britain Roscoe Medal, 2012, first prize in the Origins of Life Challenge, 2012, jointly with John Sutherland, FRS, an EPSRC Early Career Fellowship, 2013, a Bürgenstock JPS Fellowship, 2015, the Thieme Chemistry Journal Award, 2015, a Center for Advanced Studies Fellowship, 2016, and the RSC Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize, 2019.

Living organisms are highly complex chemical systems that exploit a small constellation of universally conserved metabolites. The chemical unity of these metabolites provides compelling evidence that a simple set of predisposed reactions predicated the appearance of life on Earth. Conversely, traditional "prebiotic chemistry" has produced highly complex mixtures that bear little resemblance to the core metabolites of life.

The complexity of prebiotic reactions had, until recently, suggested that elucidating life's origins would be an insurmountable task, but systems chemistry is now providing unprecedented scope to explore the origins of life and an exciting new perspective on a four billion year old problem.

At the heart of this new systems approach is the understanding that individual classes of metabolite cannot be considered in isolation from each other or their environment, if the chemical origin of life on Earth is to be successfully elucidated.

In this talk recent advances that suggest that proteinogenic peptides are predisposed chemical structures, which can be facilely and selectively synthesized in water, will be presented. Specifically, the role that nitriles may have played in shaping the structure of life's core molecules will be discussed. These result suggest that the water paradox is a false dichotomy, and water is a part of the solution not the problem.

Matthew Powner, talk image 2

Matthew Powner
Matthew Powner, talk image 1
Matthew Powner, talk image 3