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Dr James Attwater
Room 205, Christopher Ingold Building
UCL Department of Chemistry
20 Gordon Street, Kings Cross
Dr James Attwater profile picture
  • URF Fellow
  • Dept of Chemistry
  • Faculty of Maths & Physical Sciences

I studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge with a focus on biochemistry, receiving my BA in 2007. During my postgraduate studies in Philipp Holliger’s group at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, I developed a long-standing interest in the origins of life. As part of an effort to understand how genetic information could have been copied before proteins arose, I assembled a single-molecule sensitive flow cytometry-based in vitro evolution system to generate RNA catalysts that synthesise RNA. Alongside this, I investigated the effects of alternate physicochemical conditions upon RNA catalysis, uncovering particular benefits from frozen environments.


I completed my PhD in 2011 and was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship at Homerton College, Cambridge, looking for ways to combine a ribozyme with a vesicle as a model of a simple cell (spoiler: it needed a peptide). As a post-doctoral Investigator Scientist at the LMB, and with help from several talented undergraduate researchers, I succeeded in developing a catalytic RNA able to synthesise itself from short RNA building blocks. In 2020 I was awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to further explore the synthetic capabilities of RNA in a prebiotic chemical context.

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Research Summary

My research programme seeks to develop and analyse evolutionary solutions to catalytic/molecular challenges, to better understand the emergence of life-like activities from simple chemical systems. A present focus is on the origins and behaviour of biological polymers.


Life is thought to have emerged at the nexus of prebiotic chemistry, geochemical environments, and primitive biopolymers such as RNA. As part of an interdisciplinary approach, in vitro selection technologies can explore the evolutionary response of RNA to such circumstances, to map chemical and catalytic pathways that life might have harnessed to meet its initial challenges.


This interface of evolution and chemistry could inform the development of minimal living systems, both primordial and synthetic.

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