Dr Rafal Szabla

Dr Rafal Szabla

Lecturer in Organic Chemistry

Room 278

University of Edinburgh
Joseph Black Building
David Brewster Road

Research Interests

Computational and theoretical chemistry, photochemistry, reaction mechanisms and dynamics, prebiotic chemistry, origins of life

Research Overview

We are interested in studying the mechanisms of complex chemical and photochemical reactions using highly accurate methods of quantum chemistry and molecular dynamics simulations. In particular, our main area of research are prebiotic chemistry, origins of life and different aspects of the photochemistry of nucleic acids (DNA/RNA) and their analogues. Our main goals are to use the insights from quantum chemical simulations to understand and explain chemical processes, and direct future experimental work in these fields.

We are focused on the following main research directions:

(1) Photo(in)stability of biomolecular building blocks: The key biomolecular building blocks that survived prebiotic selection are characterized by high photostability, since UV light was likely one of the main sources of energy for early prebiotic reactions. To provide more details about UV-induced prebiotic selection pressure, we investigate photostability of canonical biomolecules and photodegradation of different alternative nucleobases, also including prebiotic precursor molecules.

(2) Studies of elementary prebiotic reactions: We study the chemistry and photochemistry of simple prebiotic feedstock molecules in order to elucidate the mechanistic aspects of prebiotic reactions. Our main goal is to find efficient and viable routes towards self-replicating DNA and RNA.

(3) DNA and RNA self-repair: Since no DNA repairing machinery (enzymes) existed on early Earth, we search for plausible mechanisms through which primordial informational oligomers could repair and protect themselves from UV light. In particular, we investigate DNA and RNA self-repair, which is induced by electron transfer processes in specific DNA sequences including canonical as well as noncanonical nucleobases (see below).

Diagram showing DNA and RNA self-repair


  1. Gate, G., Szabla, R., Haggmark, M.R., Šponer, J., Sobolewski, A.L., de Vries, M.S., Photodynamics of alternative DNA base isoguanine, Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 21, 13474-13485, 2019. (HOT Article)
  2. Szabla, R., Kruse, H., Stadlbauer P., Sponer, J., Sobolewski A.L., Sequential Electron Transfer Governs the UV-Induced Self-Repair of DNA Photolesions, Chem. Sci., 9, 3131-3140, 2018. (HOT Article)
  3. Xu, J., Tsanakopoulu, M., Magnani, C.J., Szabla, R., Sponer, J.E., Sponer, J., Gora, R.W., Sutherland, J.D, A prebiotically plausible synthesis of pyrimidine β-ribonucleosides and their phosphate derivatives involving photoanomerization, Nat. Chem., 9, 303-309, 2017.
  4. Szabla, R., Sponer, J, Gora, R.W., Electron Driven Proton Transfer Along H2O Wires Enables Photorelaxation of πσ∗ States in Chromophore-Water Clusters, J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 6 (8), 1467-1471, 2015.
  5. Szabla, R., Campos, J., Sponer, J.E, Sponer, J., Gora, R.W., Sutherland, J.D., Excited-state hydrogen atom abstraction initiates the photochemistry of β-2’-deoxycytidine, Chem. Sci., 6 (3), 2035-2043, 2015.