How did life on Earth begin? That is, how was there a transition from non-living matter, the primordial soup, to systems that could grow, divide, transfer information between generations, and evolve.
Szostak and others have pioneered the idea of a protocell, that is a primitive ancestor of modern day cells, possessing the fundamental characteristics of life. They are enveloped by fatty acid bilayers and contain RNA capable of both encoding information and catalysing reactions.
Szostak's model protocells are elegant but havent been fully implemented in the lab. Moreover his systems assume that the RNA polymer was there to be utilitsesd in the first place, the so-called RNA world hypothesis.
My PhD work concerned how biomolecules like RNA could come into existence in the first place. I worked on the hypothesis that the inherent order from crystals could be translated into the assembly of prebiotically available monomers. In particular I looked at the crystal directed assembly of the nucleic acid bases- adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. I also looked at the origin of biological chirality. Our group (my supervisor, myself and a postdoc) were successful in creating the first chiral surface from adsorbed amino acids.
Anyway here and now my group are working on the Newcastle protocell model. We want to create life in a test tube, from scratch. This will be a lifetimes work with absolutely no guarantee of even partial success.