John Sutherland, Simons Investigator, Wins Darwin Medal

Simons Investigator John Sutherland received the Royal Society’s 2014 Darwin Medal on August 5 in recognition of  “his novel and convincing work on prebiotic chemistry, in particular his solution to the central problem of nucleoside synthesis.” Sutherland is one of 19 investigators working on the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life, a program aiming to advance understanding of the processes that led to the emergence of life.

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John Sutherland (right) with SCOL investigators Jack Szostak (left) and Gerald Joyce (center) at the SCOL annual meeting.

The Darwin Medal is awarded every two years for distinguished work in biology, particularly in the fields of evolution, population biology, organismal biology and biological diversity. Established in 1890 in memory of Charles Darwin, the award is presented to early to mid-career scientists who are citizens of Commonwealth countries or the Irish Republic.

“I am delighted to be awarded the Darwin Medal for my group’s work on prebiotic chemistry,” says Sutherland.“And I think that it is good for the field that a body as august as the Royal Society recognizes the origin of life as an active research subject worthy of recognition.”

Sutherland and his team study how the chemicals on early Earth WERE synthesized to create the first biological molecules carrying DNA or RNA, proteins and lipids. While previous theories of the emergence of biology suggested that one of these subsystems evolved first and the others followed, Sutherland and his team discovered that particular plausible conditions on early Earth — including UV light and hydrogen cyanide — may have given rise to all the subsystems in concert.

After breaking this crucial ground, Sutherland and his group are now examining the ways in which the most basic building blocks of life could have assembled into larger macromolecules necessary for life.

“In this work, we are only really limited by our imagination,” says Sutherland.