New Max-Planck-Research Group “Geochemical Protoenzymes”

Chemist Dr. Martina Preiner is starting in January 2023 at MPI-TM and the“Microcosm Earth Center”

January 26, 2023

How did the most ancient metabolic processes develop at the origin of life, and how did they contribute to the emergence of life? Adding another aspect to the two existing groups of the new Microcosm Earth Center in Marburg, Dr. Martina Preiner investigates how the paths of the living and the non-living world crossed at the dawn of evolution.

It all began with intensive journalistic research. Chemist Martina Preiner was successful as a freelance journalist, but she simply couldn't get her mind off the topic of the origin of life. In 2020, she completed her doctorate on the topic of protometabolism at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Since January this year, Martina Preiner has joined the groups of Judith Klatt and Julia Kurth at the Microcosm Earth Center in Marburg as a Max Planck Research Group Leader of the Max Planck Institute.

Martina Preiner is particularly interested in how the organic chemistry of life developed from the chemical processes in the ancient earth's upper crust. The key elements of every biochemical reaction are enzymes, i.e. biocatalysts. They enable biochemical reactions to take place at the reaction rate that living systems require. Today, we are facing a dazzling variety of enzymes, some of which are highly complex.

How did life emerge from non-life?

The path to life was literally a rocky one: at first, there were primarily gases, water and minerals.

So how did the important biocatalysts arise? "Biological complexity almost certainly did not arise suddenly; there was a long and fluid process that led up to the existence of the first living cells. My hypothesis is that at one time, although enzymes had not yet emerged, organic cofactors already existed and could interact with minerals to make certain processes possible," the researcher explains. Martina Preiner wants to identify specific transition points between geochemistry and biochemistry by investigating the interactions between geochemically active systems and parts of microbial pathways.

Minerals can perform enzymatic functions

In this context, she focuses on cofactors. "Research colleagues showed a few years ago how crucial certain cofactors are to non-enzymatic, autocatalytic networks. And rock surfaces, I believe, could serve the function of both cofactors and enzymes."

Together with other researchers, Martina Preiner has already shown that central products of the oldest CO2-fixation metabolic pathway, the acetyl-CoA pathway, can be formed from CO2 and hydrogen (H2) without enzymes using mineral iron compounds. Minerals may thus have performed the function of enzymes and reacted with organic cofactors in a prebiotic scenario. This has already been demonstrated for the redox cofactor NAD. Now she would like to demonstrate this possible process for further cofactors.

And microbiology? According to the chemist, she is fascinated by microbiology because it focuses on relatively simple living systems, the direct relatives of the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) - a theoretical construct in which the metabolism of the earliest cells is deduced from the genetic information of archaea and bacteria. In the future, Martina Preiner would like to include the oldest organisms that perform biochemistry in her geochemical research approach. "I plan to look over the shoulders of my new colleagues and see what the mechanisms are like in living organisms. These things are being clarified in great detail here in Marburg. In the research on the origin of life, chemistry has not yet collaborated closely enough with microbiology – in this respect, I am given a very special opportunity here, and I am very happy about it," says Martina Preiner.

Interdisciplinary research for finding new answers

Although she deals with ancient times, Martina Preiner's work nonetheless – or perhaps just because of this – has a high relevance to the presence: her work combines evolutionary findings on the emergence of biochemical processes to provide new approaches for industrial catalysis research. She sees herself as a generalist which is why she is in exactly the right place at the new Center. Candidates interested in a PhD position are encouraged to apply.

Gert Bange, Vice President of Philipps-Universität Marburg, says: "With the start of Martina Preiner's group, the research approach of the Microcosm Earth Center on Marburg's Lahn Mountains not only encompasses all scales of life, from biochemical processes to global material cycles, but also connects the living and non-living world, and the timeline from the origin of life to the present day."

Tobias Erb, Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute, who co-initiated the Microcosm Earth Center, adds: „Martina Preiner is a person that works across classical disciplines to answer the fundamental question of how CO2 was transformed into organic matter throughout the evolution of life. Learning from the past to find new solutions for a sustainable world of tomorrow, is an innovative approach that she will be able to take in the framework of the Microcosm Earth Center with her colleagues.”

Martina Preiner studied chemistry and biochemistry at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. After her master's thesis (2009) in physical chemistry, she wanted to engage more generally with science and society and set up her own business as a science journalist. For seven years, she worked for media such as Deutschlandfunk, WDR, Spektrum der Wissenschaft and Neue Zürcher Zeitung. In 2016, the question of the origin of life pulled her back into science and she completed her PhD with biologist Bill Martin at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf. Here she explored the parallels between biotic CO2 fixation in methanogens and acetogens and abiotic CO2 fixation in hydrothermal systems. After her PhD (2020) and parental leave, she moved to the Netherlands to deepen her geological and geochemical understanding at the University of Utrecht and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and to gain first experience as co-leader of an expedition to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. She now plans to apply her experience in chemistry, biology and geosciences equally to her new research group at the Microcosm Earth Center and build an interdisciplinary team. She is co-founder of the Origin of Life Early career Network (Oolen), which aims to bring together and support early career researchers and from different disciplines interested in the origins of life. In June 2022, Martina Preiner received the Förderpreis für Wissenschaften of the City of Düsseldorf.

The "Microcosm Earth Center" is a joint project of the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology (MPI-TM) and the Philipps University of Marburg (UMR), dedicated to the equally highly topical and broadly diversified subject area of environmental and climate microbiology. It has an initial duration of 7 years and is financially supported by the state of Hesse. In addition to the SYNMIKRO center, it is intended to be a further hub of interdisciplinary cooperation in the microbiological research landscape of Marburg.
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