Education: University of Missouri-Columbia, Ph.D., Biochemistry
Institution: The Pennsylvania State University (laboratory of Philip Bevilacqua)
SCOL Project: The RNA World inside compartments: A study of formation and functions
The RNA World hypothesis posits that Ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules were among the primordial catalysts. Over the last two decades, many labs have isolated both natural and artificial catalytic RNAs through comparative genomics and in vitro selection experiments. While the catalytic repertoire of RNA is well established, the formation of these biopolymers and acquisition of functions by RNA molecules in prebiotic microenvironment are not well understood. Compartmentalization of molecules is ubiquitous in modern biology and certainly was very important during the early evolution of life to circumvent infinite dilution of functional molecules. Proposed work will study the conditions that favor both non-enzymatic and RNA catalyzed formation of RNA in novel coacervate compartments. We will also determine the effects of microenvironments and cosolutes in the activity and fitness landscape of the naturally occurring ribozyme. It has been shown previously that Magnesium (Mg2+), nucleotides and other molecules can partition at very high concentrations inside coacervates, thus favoring high activity of catalytic RNAs inside compartments. Through cutting-edge high throughput sequencing, changes in the local fitness landscapes of naturally occurring ribozyme will be determined and correlated to mechanistic studies obtained from classical biophysical techniques. This study will vastly increase our understanding of factors that influence formation of RNA and its ability to catalyze chemical reactions; both of which will have an enduring impact in the field of origins of life.