Editor's Note: This story accompanies the Science Journal feature article "How did life begin?"
Studying potential early steps in the origin of life requires a collaborative effort. Like winning a major sports championship or pulling off a heist in a movie, it involves bringing together a team of individuals whose specialties complement one another’s. Phil Bevilacqua brought his expertise in RNA enzymes, and Christine Keating brought her expertise in the physical chemistry of protocells. Together, they’ve assembled a group of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who each bring their own contributions based on their individual interests and areas of expertise. The diversity of the group enhances its ability think outside the box when approaching a question that requires both scientific precision and creativity.
Saehyun Choi, a NASA FINESST Graduate Fellow in the Keating lab, grew up in South Korea and had a natural curiosity about how life emerged on Earth.
“When I was in high school, I read Erwin Schrödinger’s book ‘What is Life’,” said Choi. “It really inspired me to think about how life went from the simple to the complex.”
Choi moved from studying biology to physical chemistry and got her master’s degree studying the physical chemistry of the crowded environment inside the cell. When she came to Penn State to work with Keating, she didn’t expect to be working on questions about the origin of life but was excited when she got the opportunity. She now focuses on characterizing the microenvironments of the coacervate droplets that serve as proxies for early cells, and she hopes to understand if the droplets can serve as a protective environment for RNA from different pH levels and salt concentrations.
“It is great to be able to go to Chris and Phil,” said Choi. “When I have an idea, Chris can give me feedback from her perspective and Phil will look at it from his perspective. Having these different perspectives helps us to come up with the best possible solutions.”
McCauley Meyer, a graduate student in Bevilacqua lab, grew up here in Pennsylvania. He studies RNA folding inside of the droplets. This folding is an important aspect of RNA biology that allows the molecule to both carry genetic information and act as a catalyst that can drive chemical reactions, and it’s a major motivation for the RNA world hypothesis for the origin of life on Earth. He started in the lab under high expectations, taking aspects of the project started by a former student in new directions.
“It was a bit intimidating at first, but I have now been able to get an assay working that had never been done before in this type of droplets,” said Meyer. “We can see the folding state of an RNA molecule inside the droplet with incredible accuracy. It’s really interesting to get to do this work and to get to see how our lab collaborates with Chris’s lab. I am now also beginning to work with a researcher in geosciences. It’s exciting to be a part of a project that spans all these areas of research.”
Hadi Fares, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow in the Keating lab, grew up in Lebanon, where he studied biochemistry, earning a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He moved to the U.S. for a doctoral degree program at Florida State University, where he studied the physical chemistry of polymers.
“My Ph.D. research was very far from what we are doing now,” said Fares, “but it led me to coacervates, which are the droplets we are studying in the context of the origins of life, but they can also be found in things like adhesives.”
Fares’s current goal is to understand how the coacervate droplets, which are models of early cells, might be affected by environments similar to ones that existed when the Earth was a young planet.
“When I met Chris at the end of my Ph.D. and started talking to her about opportunities in her lab, I was impressed with how open and collaborative she was,” said Fares. “We give each other ideas and can use our different perspective to expand on them. It helps to push our research forward. Studying origins of life is great because it is truly interdisciplinary and whatever your background you can bring something to the table.”
Raghav Poudyal, a postdoctoral researcher in the Bevilacqua lab, actually studied questions related to the origins of life for his doctorate at the University of Missouri.
“It was a complete accident that I started studying the origins of life in graduate school,” said Poudyal. “When I was interviewing for grad school, I thought I was going to study cancer and find a cure like everyone else. I didn’t even know that type of research was going on, but I met my Ph.D. adviser and he walked me through his research program and I found it fascinating, so I ended up joining his lab.”
Through his research, Poudyal learned about RNA enzymes, or ribozymes, and how they worked in test tubes, but he didn’t know how the first RNA molecules might have come about. When Poudyal came to Penn State, the Bevilacqua and Keating labs had just published a paper showing that they could concentrate the building blocks of RNA, and RNA molecules themselves, into the coacervate compartments.
“I thought it would be great to see whether we could actually make RNA molecules from their building blocks inside the compartments and if the RNA enzymes could be activated by these protocells,” said Poudyal. “I had absolutely no background in the physical chemistry of these compartments, so it has been great to work in the collaborative environment here at Penn State. It’s wonderful to be able to go to Chris’s lab to ask questions, and the back and forth has enabled us to do really good science.”
Bringing together such a diverse and interdisciplinary team is not an easy task, but Penn State and the Eberly College of Science provide an environment that supports this type of collaborative research. It facilitates the ability to approach bigger, more complex questions, and it doesn’t get much bigger than the origin of life.