Biology assembles itself. But how did the earliest cell assemble out of simple chemicals? In this project we will investigate how wet-dry cycles, for instance in a ‘warm little pond’, could bring about a leap in complexity from random chemicals to protocells that we can see under a microscope.
What Students will do
Students will work in a research lab to investigate how simple molecules like fatty acids self-assemble into stable compartments as a function of temperature, concentration, enhanced effect of surfaces, and presence of additives. Several characterisation methods will be used to monitor self-assembly such as microscopy or light scattering techniques, followed using image processing software. Students will then use their data to determine how these different parameters affect the formation of primitive cell membrane at the microscopic scale of the early Earth.
- Earth and Environmental Sciences
Areas of Student Interest
- Origins of life
- Advanced manufacturing
Lead Academic: Dr Anna Wang - Scientia Fellow, School of Chemistry
Anna is from Sydney and did her Bachelor of Science at the Univeristy of Sydney (2009), doing Honours research in optics and photonics with Dr. Maryanne Large. Her interest in how objects interact with light led to a PhD in Applied Physics at Harvard University (2016) with Prof. Vinothan N. Manoharan, using digital holographic microscopy - a fast, three-dimensional microscopy technique - to study the dynamics of colloidal systems including particles near oil-water interfaces, and swimming E.coli. During her PhD she was also fortunate enough to be involved with the Science and Cooking class and EdX program. Her PhD inspired a love for microscopy, and an appreciation of how thermal fluctuations and motion at the microscale can lead to self-assembled macroscopic structures. One system that captured her attention was how simple amphiphilic molecules self-assemble into cell membranes. To explore questions pertaining to membrane self-assembly during the origins of life (and the potential for cell-based life elsewhere in the universe), she did a postdoc with Prof. Jack W. Szostak at Massachusetts General Hospital as a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow in Astrobiology (Nov 2016-2018).
PhD Student: Sylvia Ganda
In 2015 Sylvia graduated from UNSW Sydney with an Honours degree in Chemical Engineering. She then undertook research on the synthesis of biodegradable carbohydrate-based nanoparticles for biomedical application. In 2016, she was invited to undertake a research exchange collaboration in Germany. While there, she learnt about the self-assembly of polymeric materials and various characterisation methods. During this time, she was inspired by how polymeric molecules can be programmed at the nanoscale to give different shapes and properties to target specific applications. She is currently pursuing a PhD under Prof. Martina Stenzel at UNSW Chemistry, focusing on the fabrication and development of biodegradable 2D discoidal particles for biomedical application. In her work, she aims to better understand the design principles required for drug carriers to overcome biological barriers by studying how these particles interact with biological systems.