University College London has awarded its first Venture Research Prize, in an initiative to promote radical new ideas free of the constraints of the conventional peer review process.
The winner, biochemist Nick Lane, was chosen by UCL provost Malcolm Grant, from 30 proposals in a process that had no deadlines or peer review and few rules.
Lane will receive £150,000 to free himself from all other duties for three years, to investigate the origins of complex, multicellular “eukaryotic” life on Earth.
His proposal is broad in its sweep but elegantly written – as befits someone who is a popular science writer as well as an academic. (His latest book, Life Ascending: the 10 Great Inventions of Evolution, has just come out.)
At the project’s heart is chemiosmosis, the process by which cells generate energy. This is driven by mitochondria, tiny organelles that retain their own genes separately from the main genome in the cellular nucleus.
Lane says eukaryotic life (all plants, animals, fungi and other organisms whose cells have nuclei) arose just once on Earth, from the symbiotic union of bacteria to form a single cell.
Venture Research looks for projects that are open-ended, without obvious, immediate applications. Lane says his work could have repercussions in any field where interactions between cellular nucleus and mitochondria might play a driving role, from research into ageing to cloning.
Congratulations to him, Malcolm Grant and above all Don Braben, the long-term proponent of Venture Research who pioneered the award. The world of science and technology needs more like it.