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One of the most profound questions in life is how did cells first materialize on Earth? Joana C. Xavier, Ph.D. is a scientist at University College London, bioengineer, and author who has focused her life’s work on finding possible answers to that question. She has an interest in systems biology, specifically the origin, evolution, and diversity of prokaryotic cells, minimal cells and chassis cells. Examples of Dr. Xavier’s work in computational biology include the analyses of the evolution of genes, species, and communities. She is also involved in large scale and integrative studies of metabolism.

Press play to learn more about:

  • The characteristics of prokaryotic cells and how they differ from eukaryotic cells.
  • How the dynamics of hydrothermal vents may have played a role in the origins of life.
  • How the vitamins and co-factors essential for us today played a vital role in establishing the first biochemical networks.

Dr. Xavier has a keen interest in the origin and evolution of life and believes that hydrothermal vents may have been the site where the first cells appeared. The ocean floor is well protected from the ultraviolet light produced by the sun. Natural chimneys form around the hydrothermal vents that release heated fluids necessary for cell development and they create a dynamic environment that would be favourable for life to evolve.

Because the focus of Dr. Xavier’s research is on the possibility of the origins of life deep in the ocean, collecting samples to conduct research is extremely limited and expensive. As a computational biologist, she uses massive amounts of specific types of data collected by other scientists and researchers to conduct big data analysis to test her theories.

The Earth is believed to be 4.5 billion years old which adds to the complexity of finding the origin of the first cell. Dr. Xavier believes there must be some type of necessity at the origin of the first cells that is governed by laws we do not yet understand. While it is difficult to determine exactly when life first emerged on the planet, some believe that it took place shortly after the Earth was formed. Identifying which genes are the oldest is challenging and the search continues to establish the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) which may lead to answers to the question of how cells materialized on Earth.

To learn more visit:

Joana C. Xavier website at

Twitter @jrcxavier

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