Giants in History: Cyril Andrew Ponnamperuma

The chemist who probed the origins of life 

Cyril Andrew Ponnamperuma (16 October 1923 - 20 December 1994)

Sri Lanka

Cyril Andrew Ponnamperuma (16 October 1923 – 20 December 1994) was a Sri Lankan chemist who was interested in the origins of life on Earth. His research in chemical evolution showed how inanimate molecules may have given rise to the building blocks of life – a process known as abiogenesis. About 4 billion years ago, chemicals from Earth’s atmosphere came in contact with energy in warm oceans. In this “primordial soup”, atoms and molecules came together to form the precursors of life, which subsequently evolved into living things. While at Ames Laboratory, Ponnamperuma synthesized the building blocks of RNA and DNA as well as the universal energy currency ATP, further showing that organic matter may have originated from chemical compounds. Later in his career, Ponnamperuma embraced the idea that hydrothermal deep-sea vents were the cradles of life, where early organisms exploited chemical gradients to drive synthesis of ATP. Further investigations into the origins of life are ongoing. Ponnamperuma was also actively involved in astrobiology research and was the principal investigator for analysis of lunar soil brought to Earth by Project Apollo.

Ames Laboratory