Origins of life

How did life form on Earth? Leading research into answering this question suggests hot springs (geothermal pools) might have played a role. But how do these pools, full of rock particles, affect the formation of primitive cells? In this project you will explore how primitive cells could have formed in hot spring environments, helping us understand how life formed on Earth, and potentially on other planets.

Understanding the origin of life on Earth is one of the key tools we have in figuring out if we are alone in the universe. However, how life formed on Earth is still relatively unknown. Scientists have suggested different hypotheses (including life forming in deep sea vents, or in bubbling hot spring pools), however these are rarely tested in “real world” conditions. In this project you will explore one of the leading hypotheses, that life formed in a hot spring pool, by testing if rock particles (which are found in all hot springs) help or hinder the formation of the basic build blocks of life, the primitive cell membrane.

What Students will do

Students will create model “protocells”, i.e. self-assembled lipid bilayer vesicles; these fatty-acid compartments are considered by many to be one of the first steps towards the formation of living cells. Students will then expose their protocells to different hot spring conditions, i.e. mineral grains, salts, high temperatures and acidic environments, imaging these systems using research-level microscopes and learning how to perform quantitative image analysis. Based on their research, students will learn more about what factors support and hinder protocell formation in hot spring environments, thus helping scientists answer the question; how did life emerge? 

Prerequisite Study

  • Basic (Year 10) understanding of chemistry and biology, and a passion for exploring the universe!

Areas of Student Interest

  • Astrobiology
  • Origins of Life
  • Chemistry
  • Geology

Lead Academic: Dr Anna Wang - Scientia Senior Lecturer, School of Chemistry 

Anna Wang

Anna leads a research group that works at the intersection of physics, chemistry, materials science, to answer questions about soft matter. Soft matter is everything that deforms easily - cell membranes, cream, gels - because internally, the components are held together by weak bonds (on the order of kT).

Studying soft matter can not only give us insight into the science of the everyday, from personal care products in the bathroom to the microfoams in our cappuccinos, but can also shed light on basic science like the principles behind self-assembly, living organisms, and how cell-based life started on Earth.


Luke Steller

Mentor: Luke Stellar - School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science

Luke Steller is a science communicator and PhD student at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, UNSW. His research focuses on understanding how life formed on Earth, through studying ancient and modern hot springs.

Outside of his research Luke explores all things creative (to limited results), including dancing, basket weaving. He is currently attempting to write a (very bad) stand up comedy show about science.


Lauren Lowe

Mentor: Lauren Lowe - School of Chemistry

Lauren Lowe is a PhD student in the School of Chemistry at UNSW Sydney. Her research involves regulating the nutrient flow of model primitive and synthetic cells to better understand how cellular life emerged on Earth.

Lauren developed a general love for science while at school and really enjoys the multidisciplinary nature of her research. In her spare time, she enjoys playing softball and spending time reading what some might consider to be too many fantasy novels.