“By visualising the structures of intact cells, we gain new insights into key life processes and create the foundations for future medical applications.”
How everything began
Martin Pilhofer’s professorship is one of four in the Department of Biology affiliated with the Centre of Origin and Prevalence of Life. Its creation was made possible by donors that included the NOMIS Foundation; similarly, the team is able to work with the very latest cryo-EM equipment thanks to the Baugarten Stiftung and August von Finck family.
In his research conducted within the context of the interdisciplinary centre, Pilhofer is studying the evolution of single-cell organisms. He says: “The further back we go in Earth’s history, the more uncertain our hypotheses and findings become.” Even the emergence of the first single-celled organisms cannot be precisely determined. Based on evidence provided by fossil bacteria, it’s estimated that they appeared around 3.5 to 4 billion years ago. “We assume that in extreme places such as deep-sea vents or hot springs, the original single-celled organisms split into bacteria and archaea soon after their emergence,” the microbiologist says.
Pilhofer and his group are now making high-resolution electron microscopy images of so-called Asgard archaea. The ETH researchers want to find out what the cell membrane of the Asgard archaea looks like and whether there’s a special inner membrane system in these cells. “This research helps us to better understand how a host cell that fused with a bacterium then developed into a complex cell,” Pilhofer says.
Interesting funding opportunities
Martin Pilhofer’s research contributes important pieces to the puzzle of the origin of life. But many are still missing. For the Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life to leverage its full potential, further financial backing from donors, foundations and industry is required. In the current phase, funds are particularly needed to provide early-career researchers with support – like fellowships for doctoral students, for example.
“Many research groups from different ETH departments have one thing in common: the great desire to understand the origins of life. By setting up the Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life, we’ve created the best environment possible to transform this collective interest into collective answers.”
Joël Mesot, President of ETH Zurich, Vice Chair ETH Foundation Board of Trustees