October 16, 1923 (a Tuesday)

Cyril Ponnamperuma

On this date, the Ceylonese-American chemist and exobiologist Cyril Ponnamperuma, who was a leading authority on the chemical origins of life, was born. Ponnamperuma’s interest in prebiotic synthesis began during his undergraduate days at Birckbeck College, University of London, where he studied under J. D. Bernal, receiving his B.Sc. in 1959. He then joined Melvin Calvin’s group at the University of California, Berkeley, receiving his Ph.D. in 1962, before moving to NASA Ames Research Center as a postdoctoral associate. In 1963, he became director of the program in Chemical Evolution in the Exobiology Division at Ames. In 1971, he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland.

Ponnamperuma, along with others, regarded the evolution of life as almost inevitable given the right starting conditions. For example, in the preface to Exobiology (1972), he wrote that:

[O]ur primary objective becomes the understanding of the origin of life in the universe. This is the scientifically broader question before us. If we can understand how life began on the Earth, we can argue that the sequence of events which lead to the appearance of terrestrial life may be repeated in the staggering number of planetary systems in our universe.

He built on the work of Miller and Urey studying chemical reactions in “primordial soup” experiments. Ponnamperuma focused on producing compounds related to the nucleic acids and offered a convincing theory about series of chemical reactions that gave rise to precursors of life on earth. He demonstrated that nucleotides and dinucleotides can be formed by random processes alone. In another achievement, he showed the formation of ATP, a compound critical to the use of energy within a cell.

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