Biological metabolism uses protein enzymes, some of which contain "cofactors" or active sites that drive the reaction. But the origin of these cofactors, and their function in the early Earth geological environment billions of years ago when life emerged, is heavily debated. We are investigating how proto-metabolic reactions might have proceeded on early Earth before the development of full enzymes, and how the earliest life could have taken advantage of available geological catalysts. We are also investigating how simple prebiotic organics can be formed in the first place in early Earth enviroments, particularly at hydrothermal vents. More about this research.
Hydrothermal vents are “geo-electrochemical” environments, meaning that naturally occurring gradients can drive abiotic redox chemistry and also can provide a source of energy for biological metabolism. Vents may also exist and could support life on on ocean worlds such as Europa or Enceladus which may be explored with future missions. We study vent systems in the lab and in the field to understand how we would recognize and detect life on another world. We use electrochemical methods to simulate vents in the lab, and are developing an astrobiology sensing platform (In-Situ Vent Analysis Divebot for Exobiology Research, InVADER) to explore vents in the deep sea. More about this research.
Iron minerals are common in seafloor or hydrothermal systems and can drive redox chemistry of organic molecules and phosphorus species, mediate elemental cycling of bio-essential CHNOPS elements, and greatly affect life or origin of life in aqueous systems. We are interested in how redox-active minerals adsorb and concentrate chemical species, and how organics affect cycling of inorganic elements. More about this research.
Chemical gardens are self-organized structures that form spontaneously when two fluids containing reactive ions intersect. Hydrothermal chimneys are a geological version of a chemical garden that grows at seafloor vents, that may have also existed on early Earth and ocean worlds. We are interested in the physical and chemical mechanisms that control the formation of chemical gardens and chimneys, which has relevance to materials science as well as the emergence of life. More about this research.
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