SCOL Project: Evolutionary and Chemical Activity Landscapes of RNA
The origin of life is believed to have progressed through a primitive stage known as the RNA World, in which RNA contained the genetic information and also carried out the functions of the cell. We aim to understand how functional RNA evolved in early life. In particular, our goal is to determine the frequency of functional sequences in the space of random sequences, the evolvability of those sequences toward new functions, and the robustness of the sequences against mutational changes. An evolutionary transition of special interest is the development of the genetic code. Therefore, in collaboration with other labs, our experiments and analysis will be directed toward understanding aspects of the emergence of chemical activities necessary for protein translation and analyzing data on early protein evolution. Furthermore, evolutionary fitness is a function of both genetic sequence and environment. Because the RNA World ultimately led to the evolution of cellular life, we will study how the encapsulated environment affects the functional activity, biophysical properties and evolutionary potential of RNA. Together these studies may enable a systematic understanding of evolution in the RNA World.
Irene Chen is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prior to her current position, she was an assistant and then associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She received a B.A. in chemistry and an M.D.-Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard, working with Jack Szostak on protocell membranes. She studied nucleic acid replication and evolution in early life as a Bauer Fellow in systems biology at Harvard. She has received the Searle Scholar award, NIH New Innovator award, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award, and the David White award for outstanding contribution in astrobiology from the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life. She has been a SCOL Investigator since 2013.