SCOL Project: The Origins of Cellular Life
The proposed research is focused on the origin, early evolution and laboratory synthesis of simple living systems. The complexity of modern biological life has long made it difficult to understand how life could emerge spontaneously from the chemistry of the early earth. The key to resolving this mystery lies in the simplicity of the earliest living cells. Through our efforts to synthesize extremely simple artificial cells, we hope to discover plausible pathways for the transition from chemical evolution to Darwinian evolution. We view the two key components of a primitive cell as a self-replicating nucleic acid genome, and a self-replicating boundary structure. We have recently discovered a simple and robust pathway for the coupled growth and division of a model primitive cell membrane. We are currently engaged in the design and chemical synthesis of modified nucleic acids and versions of RNA that may be able to replicate without enzymes. By combining self-replicating nucleic acids and membranes we hope to generate model protocells that will allow us to observe the spontaneous emergence of Darwinian behavior.
Dr. Szostak’s early research was on the genetics and biochemistry of DNA recombination, which led to the double-strand-break repair model for meiotic recombination. At the same time Dr. Szostak made fundamental contributions to our understanding of telomere structure and function, and the role of telomere maintenance in preventing cellular senescence. For this work Dr. Szostak shared, with Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, the 2006 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award and the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
In the 1990s Dr. Szostak and his colleagues developed in vitro selection as a tool for the isolation of functional RNA, DNA and protein molecules from large pools of random sequences. His laboratory has used in vitro selection and directed evolution to isolate and characterize numerous nucleic acid sequences with specific ligand binding and catalytic properties. For this work, Dr. Szostak was awarded, along with Dr. Gerald Joyce, the 1994 National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology and the 1997 Sigrist Prize from the University of Bern. In 2000, Dr. Szostak was awarded the Medal of the Genetics Society of America, and in 2008 Dr. Szostak received the H.P. Heineken Prize in Biophysics and Biochemistry.