Starmus Festival, Trondheim, Norway, invited talk

Trondheim, Norway

All life needs a continuous flow of energy to live at all. And all life on Earth uses a very peculiar way of generating energy – cells pump protons (the positively charged nuclei of hydrogen atoms) across very thin membranes to give an electrical charge on the membrane, with the same strength as a bolt of lightning. Today we know very well how the protein machinery works to generate this charge, but we know almost nothing about how it arose in the first cells.

I will show that at the origin of life, an equivalent electrical charge is found across tiny rocky pores in hydrothermal vents, and that this charge may have driven the difficult reaction between hydrogen and carbon dioxide to form organic matter and ultimately the first cells. So energy and (organic) matter are linked at the origin of life through electrical charges on membranes, which still determine the way that cells work and may have the same effects on life elsewhere in the universe for the same reasons.

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