IAP 2018: Origin of Life Lecture Series

Helen Hill | EAPS News
Monday, March 12, 2018

Over IAP 2018 Prof Gregory Fournier organized a series of hosted lectures from leaders in the Origin of Life community, focusing on various dimensions of one of the most challenging problems in the biological and planetary sciences.

Topics discussed included the origin of cells, metabolism, replication and proteins, as well as the geochemical conditions on the Early Earth that led to prebiotic and early biotic systems. Students enrolled in for-credit class 12.091/ 12.S593, who attended the seminars during IAP, engaged actively in Q & A sessions with invited speakers in a panel format, and collaborated together on creating an Origins of Life online blog resource highlighting the work of the invited speakers, and linked below.

RNA and Protein: Molecules in Mutualism
Loren Williams, Professor at Georgia Tech

Williams is a biochemist who studies the origin of life especially from the perspective of the origins of the ribosome translation and how that intersects with some of the earliest polymers and biomolecules that would have risen in prebiotic systems on Earth and some of the earliest complex macromolecular systems that might be thought of as being alive.

You can read more about this lecture and access speaker responses from the associated Q&A session in Assessing the Molecular Fingerprints of Life by Fatima Husain.

The RNA World: Emergence & Evolution of Functional RNA
Irene Chen, Assistant Professor at UC Santa Barbara


Chen presented a world in which RNA carried information and also performed catalytic functions, as well as discussing the emergence and evolution of functional RNAs. In her talk she described her group's experimental efforts to map complete fitness landscapes for functional RNA and the implications for optimizing ribozyme activity and replaying the ‘tape of life’.

You can read more about Chen's lecture and access speaker responses from the associated Q&A session in Shedding Light on RNA's Evolution by Fatima Husain, Angel Mojarro, Alexandru Bacanu, and Tzer Tan.

What is “I”: The Role of Compartmentalization in the Origins of Life
Anna Wang, Postdoctoral Researcher at Harvard/Massachusetts General Hospital

Having heard from two speakers studying the origin of replication of nucleic acids, and of the proteins responsible for catalysis, the third session pivoted to examine evolution of cell boundedness. Anna Wang a NASA postdoctoral fellow working in Jack Szotak's Lab at MGH, studies the abiotoc origins and properties of membrane systems, and the membrane aspect of what could have existed in the earliest pre cellular forms on Earth sharing work. In her talk Wang spoke about work she has been doing on the origin of membranes, vessicals, the idea of individuality or self versus non-self, and how that might relate to our understanding of the origins of life. 

You can read more about Wang's lecture and access speaker responses from the associated Q&A session in  Understanding the Biophysics of Model Protocell Membranes by Fatima Husain and Taylor Sehein

The Planetary Battery for the Origins of Life: The Example of Mars
Vlada Stamenkovic, Research Scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The forth and final presentation was given by Vlada Stamenkovic, former EAPS postdoc now a Research Scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CalTech, provided a planetary perspective on the origins of life, asking what the world was like in the Hadean, and what kind of environments and systems on planets are conducive to perhaps a transition from a non-living world to a living world. In his talk, Stamenkovik asserted that a rocky planet can act as a battery, fueling the origins and the evolution of life by locally providing redox gradients that can drive simple metabolic activity. Using Mars as an example, he showed first results on two very different planetary processes that generate oxygen- and hydrogen-rich surface and subsurface aqueous environments in an evolving planet.

You can read more about Stamenkovic's lecture and access speaker responses from the associated Q&A session in How Rocky Planets Can Fuel the Origins of Life by Fatima Husain.

Story image photo credit: J. M. Winder, with thanks.