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Abiogenesis: The Origin of Life
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Summary
Somehow, in the primordial soup of the early earth, simple cell membranes and primitive genetic material arose and coalesced into the first cells. These so-called proto-cells evolved into the incredible biological machines of today. Over the past few years, Jack Szostak and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital have been working to understand how the first cell membranes arose, and to answer the question of how DNA and RNA building blocks – the nucleotides – got inside those membranes and formed genetic polymers in the first place. Szostak and his team are trying to build an early cell or proto-cell, in order to learn something about the origin of life. There are two main aspects to that – the cell membrane and the genetic material. Proteins control everything that goes across the cell membrane in modern cells, but there were no proteins in the primordial soup. What then could the membrane of proto-cells have consisted of, to allow the genetic material to enter and replicate?
His team is making membranes out of fatty acids (rather than phosolipids such as cholesterol) which allow molecules to flip across the membranes very rapidly. A proto-cell must be able to replicate its DNA – that’s something that can be done in modern cells, but the first cells did not have this capability because they did not have proteins. Szostak and his team are starting off with a very simple system, where any sequence, could replicate spontaneously, and then, if one of those sequences turns out to do something useful for the cell, it will be selected, and will tend to take over the population And that’s evolution in action.
HHMI Researcher Jack Szostak Wins 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: http://www.hhmi.org/news/szostak20091005.html
Keywords: DNA, RNA, nucleotides, cell membranes, proto-cells, Jack Szostak, Exobiology, evolution, Darwin, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)
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