Awarded by the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution
Billions of years ago, how did life develop on Earth?
How life first originated on Earth is still a mystery, with the questions outnumbering the answers. Although evidence suggests that the early conditions on Earth were conducive to forming the building blocks of life, scientists still don’t understand how these building blocks assembled to form the very first cell.
George E. Fox, John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Biology and Biochemistry in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, was awarded a 33-month, $387,766 grant, in support of experiments that aim to understand the conditions that fostered the origins of life. The preliminary proposal for this grant was written by Maxim Paci, a Ph.D. student in Fox’s research team.
The most important property required for the first cell would have been the existence of a hereditary material. Without the ability to reproduce and create more cells just like it, that first cell would have been a dead-end.
Scientists have long thought that ribonucleic acid (RNA), which has self-replicating properties and can catalyze chemical reactions, was the earliest hereditary material. This idea, called the RNA World hypothesis, argues that RNA was the precursor to life on earth, with DNA and proteins eventually evolving to work alongside RNA.
Recently, new evidence suggests that amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins, may have existed alongside those early RNA molecules. Evidence also suggests that the interactions between amino acids and RNA may have been the key to developing a hereditary code.
In a continuation of this research, Fox’s research team will be observing the dynamics between RNA molecules and amino acids, trying to understand how the presence of amino acids can alter the behavior of RNA.
“We will be establishing a dynamic equilibrium between RNA molecules and amino acids,” Fox said. “We’ll be looking at how a population of RNA molecules, with periodic increases and decreases in complexity, changes over time. What we’re interested in is how the addition of amino acids changes this dynamic.”
This grant is administered by the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FfAME) and was made possible through the generosity of the John Templeton Foundation.
- Rachel Fairbank, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics