Researching How Life on Earth Began
Earth wasn’t always a blue-green beauty thriving with life, like it is today. Something happened 3.5 to 4 billion years ago that led to all of this, giving rise along the way to what might be our species’ most fundamental question: How did life begin?
The Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE) at the Georgia Institute of Technology has gotten increasingly warmer in its search for the answer. That’s why both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have recently renewed funding for the CCE, granting the research center $20 million over the next five years.
“We’ve made what we feel are significant advances,” says Nick Hud, director of the CCE, associate director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, and professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Fortunately, the scientist that reviewed our progress over the past five years agreed, and recommended that NSF and NASA continue funding our center.”
The CCE is an NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI), one of nine around the country. These centers are focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. The association with NASA makes the CCE, headquartered at the Petit Institute, the only CCI with another federal partner besides the NSF.
“NASA has historically been the agency that supports research into understanding how life started on Earth and where we might find it on other planets,” says Hud, whose CCE team has been, “looking at chemical processes that would lead to the spontaneous formation of polymers that could have evolved into the biopolymers we see in life today, like RNA.”
RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is one of the three major biological macromolecules essential for life (along with DNA and proteins). A common origins-of-life theory regards RNA as the first biological molecule. The CCE team has been exploring the idea that RNA evolved from something older, a biological precursor that evolved into RNA.
Basically, they are looking for a missing link between the prebiotic world and the biological world we live in – two worlds that could hardly be more different.
"One of the CCE’s next big goals is to demonstrate a rudimentary form of evolution – to find the conditions and processes under which these polymers evolved and developed the machinery needed to become living organisms," Hud says. "If we do that, it not only has implications of how life might have gotten started, but we believe it would open up a whole new area in polymer chemistry.”
Faculty members in the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering who are involved with CCE include Professors Andreas Bommarius, Martha Grover, and Charles Liotta as well as Emeritus Professors Charles Eckert and F. Joseph Schork.