Matthew Powner

2021 United Kingdom Award Finalist — Faculty

Matthew Powner

Current Position:
Professor of Organic Chemistry

University College London

Organic Chemistry

Recognized for: Developing a ‘systems chemistry’ approach to solving one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries—the origin of life. This approach involves the study of interacting molecular networks that produce emergent properties, i.e. properties that cannot be attributed to the individual molecules in isolation.

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Origin of Life Chemistry, Nucleic Acid Chemistry, Amino Acid and Peptide Chemistry, Systems Chemistry

Previous Positions:

MChem in Chemistry, The University of Manchester, UK
PhD in Chemistry, The University of Manchester, UK
Postdoctoral Researcher, The University of Manchester, UK
Harvard Origins Fellowship, Massachusetts General Hospital, USA
HHMI Associate Investigator, Massachusetts General Hospital, USA

Research Summary:

The origin of life remains a mystery that has fascinated humans for thousands of years. Beginning in the 1950s, scientists have attempted to simulate the chemical reactions that may have occurred on the early Earth in an attempt to create the simplest molecular building blocks of life. Matthew Powner, PhD, is attempting to solve this mystery using a ‘systems chemistry’ approach to uncover the mechanisms behind the emergence of life on Earth in a world devoid of proteins, enzymes, and nucleic acids, which are now present in each cell of every living organism on the planet. In order for these higher-order structures to have developed, there had to have been processes of chemically-driven self-assembly, self-regulation, and self-replication that resulted in the formation of the first nucleotides and amino acids, and subsequently DNA, RNA, and proteins.

Systems chemistry is a relatively new term that describes the study of interacting molecular networks that produce emergent properties that cannot be attributed to the individual molecules in the system. Powner has shown that it is possible to engineer systems composed of small molecules and chemical elements that could shape the basic structures and functions of life, reproducing products observed in cellular metabolism and peptide synthesis. He has also developed an ingenious method in which prebiotic chemical self-regulation could have been achieved through selective crystallization of chemical species during the synthesis of amino acids and nucleic acids. Through these efforts to build biochemical complexity from the ground-up, Powner has not only developed plausible mechanisms that could underpin the formation of life on Earth, he has also established new, straightforward, and robust techniques that can be applied to the synthesis of valuable chemical species.

“The advent of life marks the most profoundly important transition in the history of our planet, and understanding that transition is one of the greatest challenges in modern science. I feel privileged to work on this fascinating, multifaceted problem with a fantastic team of co-workers, colleagues and collaborators, and it is an honor to be selected as a 2021 Blavatnik Awards Finalist in recognition of our work.”

Key Publications:

  1. C.S. Foden, S. Islam, C. Fernández-García, L. Maugeri, T.D. Sheppard, M.W. Powner. Prebiotic Synthesis of Cysteine Peptides that Catalyze Peptide Ligation in Neutral Water. Science, 2020.

  2. P. Canavelli, S. Islam, M.W. Powner. Peptide Ligation by Chemoselective Aminonitrile Coupling in Water. Nature, 2019.

  3. S. Islam, D.-K. Bučar, M.W. Powner. Prebiotic Selection and Assembly of Proteinogenic Amino Acids and Natural Nucleotides from Complex Mixtures. Nature Chemistry, 2017.

  4. A.J. Coggins, M.W. Powner. Prebiotic Synthesis of Phosphoenol Pyruvate by α-Phosphorylation-controlled Triose Glycolysis. Nature Chemistry, 2016.

Other Honors:

2019RSC Harrison-Meldola Memorial Prize
2019Graham Thomas Lecture
2015Bürgenstock JPS Fellow
2015Thieme Chemistry Journals Award
2014The Scientist Magazine “Scientist to Watch”
2014Investigator of the Simons Foundation Collaboration on the Origins of Life
2012The Roscoe Medal, Science Engineering and Technology for Britain
2012International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life Stanley Miller Research Award


In the Media:

BBC Radio 4 “In Their Element” – Phosphorus, Smoke and Lighting

BBC Radio 4 “In Their Element”Carbon – the Backbone of Life

BBC Radio 4 “Inside Science”Origins of Life, Earthquakes in London, Frog Plague, Ancient Pollen

ABC Radio, Australia – The Science Show with Robyn Williams

PBS NOVA – Revealing the Origins of Life