Recreating chemistry from the origin of life

Dr Seán Jordan, postdoctoral researcher at DCU Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics

You want to find out more about the origin of life on Earth. It’s a big question – what sparked your interest in that?

I’ve always been interested in the natural world. I did a degree in environmental science and then a PhD in biogeochemistry in DCU, which looked at molecules in sediments to retrace changes that had happened in the climate or in microbial populations.

I found it fascinating that you could use this chemical approach to look into the past. Then I moved to University College London and I worked with Professor Nick Lane, who researches the origin of life. The analytical skills I had were suited to the work, but the theory was new to me. I became immersed in this world of amazing scientists who are passionate about discovering how life evolved billions of years ago. And now it is my passion, too.

What have you been looking at specifically?

I’m interested in how cell membranes developed. These are the fatty envelopes that surround living cells and play crucial roles in how the cell works.

In the lab, we have been recreating environmental conditions that may have supported the origin of life, then introducing the kinds of fatty acids that would have been in early cell membranes and analysing how they form structures.


What have you been finding?

We recreated the type of environment seen in alkaline hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean, and found that their warm, salty and alkaline conditions could support the development of “protocells” with membranes using these fatty acids. We published a paper about it in Nature Ecology & Evolution that sparked a lot of interest.

How has your pandemic been so far?

Busy but good. I finished in Nick’s lab in London and took up a post with the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics at DCU, where I’m looking to develop a microfluidic system for analysing the early membranes.

My wife and I moved from London to Rush in north Dublin, which is where I am from. I love being so close to the water here. I love scuba diving and swimming and kayaking, anything in or on the water.

What’s next for the research?

I have a "la Caixa" Foundation Junior Leader Fellowship to do research at the Universidade de Lisboa, so we will be moving to Portugal at the end of the summer.

I’m interested in how early membranes could appear in the fossil record, so we are going to artificially fossilise them and compare those structures to microscopic fossils in ancient rocks from the time when life started to evolve.

In the coming years, space missions will be bringing rocks back from other planets, such as Mars, and analysing them for signs of life. So we need to know more about what early life looked like in the fossil record on Earth, for comparison.

What keeps you going?

Academic research at my stage is difficult for everyone – you have to keep looking for funding and you are expected to pull up your whole life and move to other countries to work with different groups and find your own niche.

But this is the only job I have ever had where I wake up every day and I am excited to go to work. I get to create projects with questions that interest me and then enjoy figuring them out. I feel lucky to have the ideal job – the other stuff that comes with that is worth it.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation