In “From Telomeres to the Origins of Life” (New York Times, October 19, 2011) Claudia Dreifus interviews origin of life researcher (and Nobelist, for telomeres)
Jack Szostak: What do you study now?
The origins of life. In my lab, we’re interested in the transition from chemistry to early biology on the early earth. Let’s go back to the early earth — let’s say probably some time within the first 500 million years. And let’s say the right chemistry that would make the building blocks of life has happened and you have the right molecules with which you can spark life. How did those chemicals get together and act something like a cell? You want something that can grow and divide and, most importantly, exhibit Darwinian evolution. The way that we study that is by trying to make it happen in the lab. We take simple chemicals and put them together in the right way. And we’re trying to build a very, very simple cell that might look like something that might have developed spontaneously on the early earth.
How far have you gotten?
Maybe I can say we’re halfway there.
We think that a primitive cell has to have two parts. First, it has to have a cell membrane that can be a boundary between itself and the rest of the earth. And then there has to be some genetic material, which has to perform some function that’s useful for the cell and get replicated to be inherited. The part we’ve come to understand reasonably well is the membrane part. The genetic material is the harder problem; the chemistry is just more complicated. The puzzle has been understanding how a molecule like RNA can get replicated before there were enzymes and all this fancy biological stuff, protein machinery, that we have now in our cells.
It sounds as though they have solved the easy part of the problem, but that, unfortunately, doesn’t really mean “halfway there.”