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Top Scientists Explore the Origin of Life in Annual Lasker Lecture at Scripps Research Institute Florida Campus

New Insight Offered Into Answering the Fundamental Question:
How did living cells first form on earth and could they form the same way on other planets?

JUPITER, FL, March 16, 2010 – Recent laboratory experiments which seek to recreate the formation of the first living cells from the basic chemical building blocks of nature are shedding new light on how life may have occurred on earth and on other planets, biologist Jack Szostak and chemist Brian Paegel said today in the annual Lasker Foundation Lecture on the Florida campus of the Scripps Research Institute.

In his remarks, "The Origin of Cellular Life and the Emergence of Darwinian Evolution," Szostak, winner of the 2006 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research and 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, focused on his latest studies, which seek to reconstruct the pre-evolutionary formation of living systems from basic chemical building blocks. "If it proves to be easy to build simple cells in the laboratory," Szostak said, "it might show that life could have formed quickly on earth and perhaps even other planets in similar ways."

In "Landscapes for Darwinian Evolution," Paegel, an assistant chemistry professor at Scripps Research Institute's Florida campus, described the basic implications and practical applications of his research. "Both Jack and I are working on how life might have begun on our planet because figuring that out would begin to answer most of the questions we have about ourselves and our universe," Paegel said. "It would explain whether or not we are unique in the universe, or if this really is the natural consequence of oxygen, carbon, and other organic material coming together."

The Lasker Lecture is part of a series of forums presented by the Lasker Foundation designed to support and promote a public dialogue over critical issues involving the biological sciences. The inaugural Lasker Lecture, "Reading the Human Genome: Genes and Brains," by biologist and two-time Lasker laureate Sydney Brenner, took place at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle in November 2009. Today's lectures were followed by a public discussion moderated by Robert Bazell, chief science and health correspondent of NBC News.

Szostak's work focuses on the use of fatty acids – the result of the breakdown of fats – to produce synthetic membranes or vesicles; the body uses these same membranes to carry nucleotides – the building blocks of both RNA and DNA – into the cell. Fatty acids, which are simple in their chemical structure, may have been part of the chemical soup found on early earth that gave way to simple cells that eventually evolved into recognizable life forms.

During its next phase, the research will shift from studying these membranes into the realm of genetics. "We are looking at the replication of primitive genetic materials, which is something of a challenge," Szostak said. "But if we can solve the problem of chemical replication of some genetic material, then we may be close to building simple living cells. Ultimately we hope this will lead to a more complete explanation of how life itself began on the earth."

Paegel outlined his efforts to come to a better understanding of the processes required to construct those membranes in the first place. "If you can build it, you can understand it," he said, "Once it's built, we can use it to actually direct the evolutionary process where we want it to go. The other aspect of our work is the practical development of fatty acid membranes for drug delivery. We devote countless hours to screening for drugs, so why not screen for delivery systems, too?"

Paegel explained that conventional methods for generating molecular compartments aren't terribly effective. To solve that problem, he and Scripps Research scientist Gerald Joyce of The Scripps Research Institute's La Jolla, California, campus perfected a microfluidic processor designed to control the synthesis of these basic membrane structures and create a platform to observe molecular evolution in real time.

Paegel's innovative device used a replicating molecule that stitched together strands of RNA. After just 70 hours of replication, the molecule could duplicate RNA 90 times more efficiently than it did at the beginning, a clear confirmation of the power of evolution.

The study, "Darwinian Evolution on a Chip," was published in the journal Public Library of Science in April 2008.

Jack Szostak Biography

Jack Szostak is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and the Alex Rich Distinguished Investigator in the Department of Molecular Biology at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the enzyme telomerase, which protects chromosomes from degrading, a process common to aging and various disease states. He received the 2006 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research for the same work.

His current research interests are in the laboratory synthesis of self-replicating systems and the origin of life. He and his colleagues have developed in vitro selection as a tool for the isolation of rare 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. He is co-director of Harvard's Origins of Life Initiative.

Szostak has also been awarded, along with Gerald Joyce of The Scripps Research Institute, the 1994 National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology and the 1997 Sigrist Prize from the University of Bern, Switzerland. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2000, Szostak was awarded the Medal of the Genetics Society of America.

Brian Paegel Biography

Brian Paegel is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry with a joint appointment to the Translational Research Institute at Scripps Florida, part of The Scripps Research Institute, which is headquartered in La Jolla, California. He is well known for his work in the field of directed evolution, applying Darwinian principles to populations of molecules rather than organisms and using microfluidic technology as a platform for observing evolution in real time in molecules.

Paegel graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. in chemistry from Duke University (NC) in 1998 and received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in December 2003. Just prior to joining Scripps Florida in 2008, he was a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow in Gerald Joyce's laboratory at Scripps Research's La Jolla campus. He received a National Institutes of Health Pathway to Independence Award in 2007.

About The Scripps Research Institute The Scripps Research Institute is one of the world's largest independent, non-profit biomedical research organizations, at the forefront of basic biomedical science that seeks to comprehend the most fundamental processes of life. Scripps Research is internationally recognized for its discoveries in immunology, molecular and cellular biology, chemistry, neurosciences, autoimmune, cardiovascular, and infectious diseases, and synthetic vaccine development. Established in its current configuration in 1961, it employs approximately 3,000 scientists, postdoctoral fellows, scientific and other technicians, doctoral degree graduate students, and administrative and technical support personnel. Scripps Research is headquartered in La Jolla, California. It also includes Scripps Florida, whose researchers focus on basic biomedical science, drug discovery, and technology development. Scripps Florida is located in Jupiter, Florida.

About the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation fosters the prevention and treatment of disease and disabilities by honoring excellence in basic and clinical science by educating the public and by advocating for support of medical research. Founded in 1942, the Lasker Foundation presents the Lasker Awards, which are among the most respected science prizes in the world, recognizing innovative leaders in basic and clinical medical research, and individuals for outstanding public service. For much of the 20th Century, the Foundation was led by Mary Lasker, who was America's most prominent citizen-activist for public investment in medical research. She is widely credited with motivating the White House and the Congress to greatly expand federal funding for medical research, particularly through the National Institutes of Health.


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