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A 3-year PhD studentship using RNA to exploit and enhance prebiotic chemical pathways

   Department of Chemistry

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  Dr James Attwater  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Supervisors: Dr James Attwater, Prof. Matthew Powner

Application deadline: 5 pm on 18th February 2022

Start date: 26th September 2022

The UCL Chemistry Department is offering a fully-funded three-year studentship to a highly motivated candidate to start in September 2022. The student will carry out his/her doctoral research at UCL.

The earliest forms of life on Earth would have faced a very different chemical environment to today. The successful applicant will work on a collaborative project within the groups of Dr James Attwater and Prof. Matthew Powner to explore how primitive catalytic RNA molecules – ribozymes – would have responded to and enhanced prebiotically-plausible chemistries. Prof. Powner’s work on water-compatible organic chemistry has revealed new prebiotically-plausible routes to biologically relevant species1. Dr Attwater’s work on synthetic molecular evolution has shown how biological processes can be established at the level of single catalytic RNA molecules2. The applicant will combine these approaches in a new strategy: to develop catalytic RNAs that use prebiotic chemical substrates to establish primitive biosynthetic pathways. The goal of this project is to understand how fundamental biological functions could have been established in a prebiotic molecular context, exploring and characterising the earliest steps that might have been taken on the road from chemistry to biology. 

The applicant should have, or be expecting to achieve, a first or upper second class Honours degree or equivalent in chemistry or a related discipline. Prior laboratory research experience would strengthen the application. This project would particularly suit an applicant seeking to develop expertise in molecular and synthetic biology, for which close training will be provided. The applicant will also be able to harness the highly collaborative nature of the UCL Chemistry Department.

Interested candidates should initially contact Dr. James Attwater ([Email Address Removed]) with a degree transcript and a motivation letter expressing interest in this project. Informal inquiries are encouraged to help applicants establish if the project is a good fit for them.

Suitable applicants will be required to complete the MS Form entitled Application for Research: Degree Chemistry programme. In addition, it is essential that applicants complete an electronic application form at (please select Research degree: Chemistry programme) prior to the application deadline and advise their referees to submit their references as soon as they possibly can. All shortlisted applicants will be invited for the interview no more than 4 weeks after the application deadline. Any admissions queries should be directed to Dr Jadranka Butorac and Holly Ambrose-Wilson at [Email Address Removed].

1. Foden, C.S. et al. Prebiotic synthesis of cysteine peptides that catalyze peptide ligation in neutral water. Science 370, 865-869 (2020).

2. Attwater, J., Raguram, A., Morgunov, A.S., Gianni, E. & Holliger, P. Ribozyme-catalysed RNA synthesis using triplet building blocks. Elife 7(2018).

Funding Notes

Applications are welcome from UK nationals, EU students with settled/pre-settled status and students with indefinite leave to remain or enter. Please note that the studentship only covers home fees. The updated rules for eligibility for home fees for next year are available at
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