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RNA World Defenders Take Center Stage at Princeton | Mazur

RNA World Defenders Take Center Stage at Princeton Origin of Life Conference


By Suzan Mazur

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Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 (ET)

John Sutherland, the British chemist and winner of the Lonsdale Origin of Life Challenge last year with Matthew Powner, opened day two of the Princeton conference talking about a new holistic approach to the problem, a theme he hinted at several years ago in a lecture at Montpellier, France co-sponsored by ISSOL in which he said the various camps of Origin of Life should come together. He, of course, was talking about metabolism first, genetics first, etc. factions. Sadly, Sutherland's Princeton address was so technical that even scientists in the room who were not chemists had a tough time appreciating it. Plus Sutherland was often barely audible and related more to the screen than to the audience. What progress has been made in his investigations stemming from the Lonsdale prize remains unclear, since Sutherland escaped to the airport canceling my lunchtime interview with him.

But ISSOL president Dave Deamer (who speaks on Thursday [Friday NZT]), also a Lonsdale award winner, told me the following about Sutherland's work in a recent interview:

"Sutherland and Powner published a remarkable paper in 2009 showing how these relatively complex nucleotides, the subunits of RNA, could be synthesized by a chemical process using feedstock. Their proposal was not just about RNA but trying to understand the chemistry of systems of molecules that could give rise to a variety of monomers of which the mononucleotides of RNA are one possible outcome. . . .

I'm not sure how John Sutherland and Matthew Powner would define feedstock, but I assume that they mean relatively reactive simple molecules, simpler, in fact, than mononucleotides. However, one end product of the reaction pathways they are investigating is a mononucleotide, as they showed in their Nature paper. So if that's what they mean by feedstock, then that's not what my work involves because I don't do that kind of chemistry.

Powner and Sutherland are real chemists, organic chemists. They know a lot about how organic chemicals can behave as a feedstock and produce more complex molecules.

What I'm doing is taking the next step and saying given that more complex molecules can be synthesized, what can we do to get them to form polymers? . . . .

I have heard from Harry Lonsdale that Sutherland thinks it might be 50 years [before we get to the bottom of the origin of life]."

Steven Benner of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution successfully resuscitated the audience following Sutherland's talk. Benner so far is the hands-down star of the Princeton powwow. Dressed in an arty teal blue shirt, he thoroughly engaged the crowd, punctuating his informative presentation with perfectly-timed jokes, while working both the power point and chalk board.

Benner told me the day before of his plan to start his talk focusing on my story about the Princeton conference, in which I asked whether it was the "RNA World's Last Hurrah?" He did indeed put the Scoop Media story up on the big screen.

Pier Luigi Luisi was not in the Princeton audience to explain why he considers the RNA World a baseless fantasy, as I reported. So Benner explained for Luisi, saying the reason why is because of the decomposition of ribose, it's unstable.

Loren Williams of Georgia Institute of Technology, who's been a lively questioner at many of the presentations, told Benner the following regarding the RNA World, "Until I see it rain over in a meteor, I'm not going to believe it."

Paul Higgs of Canada's McMaster University opened with a followup story of mine quoting Andrew Pohorille's comment to me that reports of the death of the RNA world are greatly exaggerated. Higgs was an effective communicator, noting that there was indeed progress on the RNA World, citing the work of Dave Deamer et al.

In explaining how life emerges, Higgs pointed to the importance of spacial effects, saying they're "essential" regarding fluctuations. He said it is fluctuations that take you over the unstable point and life emerges.

Laura Landweber, principal organizer of the Princeton conference, emailed me today advising that the presentation of Georgia Institute of Technology's Nicholas Hud (which I missed) had not been streamed and also was not to be reported. Apparently, if the details of certain presentations get out, the science journals won't publish the scientist's paper.

Tomorrow is a spectacular lineup: Andrew Pohorille (origin of protein structures and functions), Wim Hordijk (autocatalytic sets), Nilesh Valdya (spontaneous network formation), Michael Hecht (synthetic biology), Loren Williams (ironing out ancient biochemistry), George Fox (origins and evolution of the ribosome) and much more. .

Earlier Reports in this series:
Conference Preview
Conference Report #1
Conference Report #2


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Suzan Mazur is the author of The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry. Her interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur's reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs. Email: sznmzr@aol.com

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