Project: Evolutionary Fitness Landscapes in the Origin of Life
Information transfer and biochemical activity are defining features of life that enable Darwinian evolution. These features are united in nucleic acids such as RNA, which are believed to have been the basis for the earliest living organisms. We seek to understand the emergence of biological activity and catalysis from random sequence and the evolutionary potential of nucleic acids. We will also investigate the roles of changing environments and adaptation from pre-existing functions in evolutionary innovation. Comprehensive experimental exploration of the entire space of possible sequences combined with computational analysis will enable us to build a quantitative understanding of the earliest evolutionary stages of life.
Bio: Irene Chen is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She received a BA in Chemistry and an MD-PhD 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 Harold Weintraub graduate student award, the GE & Science Prize for young life scientists, and the David White award for outstanding contribution in astrobiology from the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life.