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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Light and the Origin of Life: the Role of Manganese Workshop

12th March 2014, 09:00 to 14th March 2014, 17:00, Seminar Room, Institute of Advanced Study

This is a two-day discussion that will be centred on the role of manganese in the carbon cycle, both in ancient and modern environmental systems as well as investigating potential environmental engineering applications for manganese oxides and oxidases. The workshop is by invitation only, however for further information, please contact Dr Karen Johnson ( or Dr Ari Sadanandom (

The origin of life is of interest to everyone from scientists to philosophers. Current theories on the origins of life on Earth are far from complete but it is hypothesised that 2.5 billion years ago, photosynthetic oceanic cyanobacteria used light to transform the Earth's atmosphere into one suitable for the evolution of complex life, by producing an oxygen-rich atmosphere. These bacteria were the first to use water as a terminal reductant and this innovation in oxidation of water allowed photosynthetic organisms to leave the oceans and change the face of the Earth. Manganese-containing enzymes were, and still are, the catalyst for photosynthesis today, allowing plants to use light to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars to support all life on Earth. This activity explores the nature of the ancient carbon. Durham University has discovered in South African manganese oxides dating from the Archean period (2.5 billion years old). This carbon may not only hold clues about the origin of life but it may also help in understanding the potential of modern manganese oxides for sequestering carbon in terrestrial environments.

Manganese-containing enzymes are also an area of interest in engineering applications. Manganese oxides and oxidases are powerful natural oxidants capable of oxidizing potentially toxic organic contaminants. This project has the support of IAS Fellow Professor Brad Tebo, a world leading expert in biogenic manganese oxides. A recent breakthrough by Tebo’s group in expressing a Mn oxidase enzyme in EColi means that engineering applications for using manganese oxides and oxidases to break down micropollutants which cause problems in our drinking water can now be explored.

This programme draws on the established expertise of the engineering and biology departments at Durham and aims to address a number of fundamental issues about the nature of the carbon intercalated in manganese oxide minerals and the potential for using manganese oxides and oxidases in environmental engineering applications.