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European funding for cutting-edge research
HHU evolutionary biologist Prof. Dr. William Martin receives third ERC Advanced Grant

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Prof. Dr. William Martin from the Institute of Molecular Evolution was awarded a rare third ERC Advanced Grant from the European Research Council. (Photo: HHU / Verena Zimorski)

The work in Prof. Dr. William Martin's department strives to deliver science and society a better understand the origin of life on Earth roughly four billion years ago. His research is build upon the very simple idea that evidence for the very early course of microbial evolution should be preserved within the metabolism of modern cells. In order to uncover evidence for the ancient past in biochemical pathways, one has to have an archaeologists' intuition, that is, one has to look in the metabolism of ancient microbial lineages. In addition, one has to use the right ‘magnifying glass’ in order to identify ancient biochemical traits. For Prof. Martin, this magnifying glass is the chemical energy that propels life forward: “Life is a chemical reaction that releases energy. There are no exceptions to this rule.” 

To shed light on how the chemical reaction of life arose, the Düsseldorf-based biologist and his team will be focussing on the key role of energy in central metabolic processes. Their research uses three kinds of data that are linked by the common thread of enzymes. These catalysts of life accelerate and facilitate chemical reactions that have a natural tendency to occur anyway.

The first area of the project involves measuring the energy surrounding the process of metabolic origin in search of traces of the chemical environment at the site of biochemical origins. The type and number of chemical reaction partners from which the cells obtain their substance as well as by the sensitivity of those reactions to pH and temperature should uncover insights into the ecological setting of life's origin.  

The second project area relates to the ability of simple minerals occurring in hydrothermal vents to substitute for enzymes in biochemical reactions. Prof. Martin wants to gain further information about abiotic catalysts for the chemical reactions of metabolic origin and, in doing so, about the specific chemical environment that fostered the origin of life.

The third area is concerned with tracing the path taken by the first cells upon leaving their site of origin and learning to live on their own on the early inhospitable Earth. A key role in that process was played by particular electron carriers, iron-containing proteins known as cytochromes. Prof. Martin will investigate the ecological setting surrounding the evolutionary origin of these compounds.

The primary focus and unifying theme of all three project areas is the chemistry of hydrothermal vents, which are central to Prof. Martin’s theory on the origin of life, a model that is now included in modern microbiology textbooks. His first two Advanced Grants dealt with networks as models for understanding the evolutionary process (2009–2013) and with the use of information form whole genomes to reconstruct the course of early evolution (2015–2020). His third ERC grant now homes in on the nature of energy that drove life's first chemical reactions.   

Prof. Dr. Dr. Andrea Icks, Vice-President for Research and Transfer at HHU, has congratulated Prof. Martin on his extraordinary success: “The ERC Advanced Grant is awarded only to a small number of leading-edge researchers. William Martin has received this distinction for the third time already, putting him at the very top of his field internationally. We are proud to have a researcher of his calibre at HHU.”

ERC Advanced Grant

The European Research Council is an organisation for funding frontier scientific research conducted within the European Union. It encourages scientists from the EU to submit their proposals for new research projects in competitions. It supports both emerging and established researchers across various areas of funding.

ERC Advanced Grants are geared to established, active scientists with an excellent scientific track record. Scientific achievements over the ten years prior to the proposal are taken into account. Publications in international journals, patents, conference contributions, research awards and academic memberships are all considered in the evaluation. ERC Advanced Grants are awarded for a maximum amount of EUR 2.5 million and a period of up to five years. Project proposals are evaluated in a multi-stage peer review by independent experts solely on the basis of scientific excellence. The special distinction of receiving an ERC Advanced Grant is also reflected in the success rate, which was 7.5 percent for the current competition.

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