Press release 51/24 - 02.05.2024

How life began: A molecular perspective

New DFG Collaborative Research Centre aims to understand the history of chemical evolution on Earth.

Since the beginning of April, an interdisciplinary Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) has been researching the first molecular steps that led to the development of life on Earth. The large-scale project based at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich (LMU) in cooperation with the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is funded to the tune of €2 million by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The Institute of Physics at the University of Augsburg is also involved through a sub-project.


How life developed from inanimate matter remains one of the greatest questions of all time. An interdisciplinary group of researchers from several universities is currently working towards answering this fundamental question. The question of how molecules were able to evolve in a world without life, thereby creating the first molecular building blocks which we know of today, stands at the centre of this large-scale research project. During the Proterozoic Eon, the first cells, also known as proto cells, developed from these molecules.

It is currently assumed that ribonucleic acid (RNA) was the first carrier of genetic information. The large-scale project “Molecular evolution in prebiotic environments” is investigating which chemical, physical, and geological conditions are necessary to trigger molecular evolution with RNA. The CRC/Transregio 392 “Molecular evolution in prebiotic environments” is funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to the tune of €2 million per year.

Prerequisites for early life

Prof. Christoph Weber, Chair of Theoretical Physics II and leader of the research group “Mesoscopic Physics of Life,” is involved in the project. “We would like to understand the extent to which phase transformations that we know of from our everyday life have helped to create the special building blocks of life,” he explains. “Phase transformations, such as the formation of droplets, were ubiquitous on the Earth in its early phase and also probably on other planets as well.” The knowledge gained from this interdisciplinary collaboration could enable us to better understand the prerequisites for the development of life on other planets.”

Visualisierung zum Projekt "Mesoscopic Physics of Life" © University of Augsburg

In his sub-project, Weber is researching how functional and long “building blocks of life” such as RNA are created through oscillating phase transformations. The idea is that constantly changing environmental conditions influence the chemical processes that underlie the formation of RNA. These oscillations take into account the unstable conditions on the early Earth caused by volcanic activity, strong radiation, and chaotic weather. “We think that oscillating phase transformations could be a selection mechanism, which we plan to investigate in close collaboration with experimental groups in the CRC,” says Weber.

 Ambitious world-class research

The CRC/Transregio 392 is funded for four years and is being led by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich (LMU), with the renowned bio-physicist Prof. Dieter Braun as speaker. The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is the co-applicant. Alongside the University of Augsburg, the University of Stuttgart, Julius-Maximilians-Universität of Würzburg (JMU), Heidelberg University, TU Dortmund University, as well as the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) are involved. The large-scale project brings together expertise from various disciplines, including geosciences, chemistry, astrophysics, biophysics and biochemistry.

Collaborative Research Centres are designed by the German Research Foundation (DFG) to strengthen world-class research and provide a funding mechanism for particularly innovative, ambitious, and long-term research projects for a maximum of 12 years. Every four years, a decision is made as to whether to continue the funding. With this newly started project, the University of Augsburg is now a participant in four Collaborative Research Centres; it also coordinates a fourth.

Collaborative Research Centres at the University of Augsburg

Collaborative Research Centre/Transregio coordinated by the University of Augsburg:

  • CRC/Transregio 360: “Constrained Quantum Matter” (Speaker: Prof. István Kézsmárki, University of Augsburg; Co-applicant: TUM)

Other CRC/Transregios in which the University of Augsburg is involved

  • CRC 1585 “Structured functional materials for multiple transport in nanoscale confinements” (University of Bayreuth, Speaker: Prof. Jürgen Senker; University of Augsburg: Prof. Fabian Pauly, Theoretical Physics)
  • CRC/Transregio 386 “HYP*MOL – Hyperpolarisation in molecular systems” (Leipzig University, Speaker: Prof. Jörg Matysik; Co-applicant: TU Chemnitz; University of Augsburg: Dr Christian Wiebeler, Computational Biology)
  • CRC 1389 “Understanding and Targeting Resistance in Glioblastoma” (Heidelberg University, Speaker: Prof. Wolfgang Wick; University of Augsburg: Prof. Matthias Schlesner, Biomedical Informatics, Data Mining and Data Analytics)

scientific contact

Theoretical Physics II

media contact

Corina Härning
Deputy Media Officer
Communications and Media Relations