The Origin of Cellular Life

Speaker:      Jack Szostak (Harvard)

Subject:       The Origin of Cellular Life

Location:     Industrial Engineering, TU Delft

Date:            Friday, June 26 2015, 16:00-17:00

Jasper Veerman

 

Besides the research topic discussed below, Jack Szostak has already made brilliant contributions in the field of genetics. A major achievement was the creation of the first yeast artificial chromosome, aiding in the mapping of genes in mammals. From there, he carried on studying function of telomeres, the end of chromosomes. For these contributions, he was awarded the 2009 Nobel prize in medicine or physiology.

Currently, space explorations yield interesting pieces of evidence for potentially habitable planets somewhere else in outer space. “Are we alone?”, is a question that continuously fascinates researchers. In order to determine whether extraterrestrial life is possible, Jack Szostak aims to unravel the details on the origin of life. If it is possible to create a protocell in relatively understandable steps with reasonable probability, it is plausible that life will exist elsewhere.

Szostak starts from the justifiable assumption that from anorganic molecules and a favourable environment, certain simple lipids and amino acid progenitors can be formed. In order to build the protocell, the self assembling properties of lipids are ideal for creating a membrane-like structure. Such a compartment is required for allowing sufficient concentrations of the functional organic materials inside. These materials are likely to be a progenitor of RNA, since this polymer can both store heritable information, as well as carrying out enzymatic-like activity.

While studying these two essential ingredients, a lipid vesicle and RNA, problems in the model are overcome one at a time, leaving us optimistic that the origin of cellular life can, one day, be presented as an event that was simply bound to happen. From then, the question becomes where there is extraterrestrial life, and how we might get in touch.

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