Research

Proud to be part of a highly dynamic institution: UT Rio Grande Valley – The Future of Texas!

My work focuses on probing the transition between geo- and biochemistry, on understanding the laws of living systems, on chemical biosignatures for space exploration, and on studying biological traits emerging in autocatalytic systems. As a consummate hands-on experimentalist, I like to develop testable ideas and translating them into laboratory setups.

Research topics
Prebiotic chemistry

I am interested in understanding under which conditions certain chemistry transitions into a living system. I’ve focused on the non-enzymatic synthesis of sugars (necessary for the synthesis of nucleotides), on studying the synthesis and properties of P-bearing organics, and on the interactions (positive and negative) between these pathways. Moving away from synthesis, I am fascinated by prebiotic coupling systems which allow for non-spontaneous processes to occur by linking them to spontaneous ones. These systems are crucial to modern (and ancient) life, and we have all the reasons to think they had an important role in its emergence.

I use analytical chemistry to probe complex samples (from Whicher & Camprubi et al., 2018, Camprubi et al., 2017, Herschy et al., 2014).

Related publications (UR = Under Review):

Camprubi et al., (2022) Do soluble phosphates direct the formose reaction towards pentose sugars? Astrobiology, 22(8), 981-991

Preiner et al., (2020) The future of origin of life research: bridging decades-old divisions. Life, 10:3

Camprubi et al., (2019) The emergence of life. Space Science Reviews, 215:56 (also as a chapter in ‘Ocean Worlds: Habitability in the Outer Solar System and Beyond’, Springer, 2021)

Whicher & Camprubi et al., (2018) Acetyl phosphate as a primordial energy currency at the origin of life. Origin of life and evolution of biospheres, 48(2):159-179

Sojo et al., (2016) The origin of life in alkaline hydrothermal vents. Astrobiology, 16(2), 181-197

Herschy et al., (2014) An Origin-of-Life reactor to simulate alkaline hydrothermal vents. Journal of Molecular Evolution, 79, 213-227


Hydrothermal simulations and heterogeneous catalysis

Hydrothermal systems are very prevalent on Earth and other silicate-rich planetary bodies. Rock-water interactions generate a reactivity landscape replete with simple inorganics and ample free energy. I built a high-pressure microfluidics reactor which lets us simulate these out-of-equilibrium settings with precision in the lab. We often use minerals as catalysts drawing inspiration from the plethora of metallic cofactors prevalent in biology. We can either prepare thin mineral sheets under controlled conditions before an experiment or allow for their spontaneous precipitation during its course.

Simulating hydrothermal systems with my high-pressure microfluidics setup at Utrecht University. Pic: face.it.photography.

Related publications:

Camprubi et al., (UR) A high-pressure microfluidics setup to study COreduction under Hadean Earth submarine hydrothermal conditions.

Živković et al., (2021) Changes in COadsorption affinity related to Ni doping in FeS surfaces: A DFT-D3 study. Catalysts, 11(486)

Camprubi et al., (2017) Iron catalysis at the origin of life. IUBMB Life, 69(6), 373-381


Biosignatures and space exploration

Being able to study extraterrestrial life would be immeasurably useful for us to understand life beyond the contingencies of life on Earth. Deciding which celestial bodies should be prioritised for this endeavour is always contentious however. I want to know which extraterrestrial chemicals are indicative of an alien biosphere (i.e. are biosignatures). I am interested in profiling the geochemistry of planetary bodies beyond Earth, particularly that of Ocean Worlds where hydrothermal systems are widespread. I am now building the Boreas simulator – named after the Greek god of winter – to study how hydrothermally-synthesized organics at Enceladus become altered by the low-pressure, low-temperature, and high-irradiation conditions in its icy surface.

Submarine hydrothermal systems at Enceladus explain the organics detected by the Cassini-Huygens mission (from Choblet et al., 2019).

Related publications:

Kopacz et al., (UR) The photochemical evolution of meteoritic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in clay environments on prebiotic Earth and Mars.

Camprubi et al., (2022) Prebiotic Chemistry: From dust to molecules and beyond. Chapter in ‘New Frontiers in Astrobiology’, Elsevier Cambridge

Giese et al., (2022) Experimental and Theoretical Constraints on Amino Acid Formation from PAHs in Asteroidal Settings. ACS Earth Space Chem., 6, 3, 468–481

Taubner et al., (2020) Experimental and simulation efforts in the astrobiological exploration of exooceans. Space Science Reviews, 216:9

Choblet el al., (2019) Enceladus as a potential oasis for life: Science goals and investigations for future explorations. White paper in response to ESA’s Voyage 2050 call. Available at Exp. Astron., (2021) https://doi.org/10.1007/s10686-021-09808-7


Heredity and evolution in protocells

(future work)

Information polymers (RNA, DNA) serve as information repositories in modern and ancient cells. It’s possible this wasn’t the case during the early steps in the transition from geo- to biochemistry. Composomes are molecular assemblies whose composition is information. Vesicles are made of amphiphilic molecules and could have operated as composomes, with their constituent parts governing their stability and fitness (capability to replicate). Whether vesicles display significant enough levels of heredity between subsequent reproductive cycles will determine whether such composomes are capable of evolution. It’s likely the key lies in understanding the interaction between the biophysics of vesicle replication and the dynamics of autocatalytic networks producing vesicle monomers. I’m starting to work on these questions. Ideas and critiques are welcomed!

Vesicles forming under high salinity and pH conditions (from Jordan et al., 2019. Nat. Eco. Evo., 3:1705-14).