University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

To perform experiments and analysis that test the peptide-RNA origin-of-life scenario for the evolution of present-day proteins

  • Amount $1,500,000
  • City Chapel Hill, NC
  • Investigator Charles Carter
  • Year 2021
  • Program Research
  • Sub-program Matter-to-Life

While we have a handle on the main outline of how life likely evolved on earth, the details remain shaky. It is widely accepted that the essential structures underpinning life on earth—DNA and proteins—originated from simpler substructures, nucleic and amino acids swimming freely in a primordial soup before combining into those complex structures. It’s also widely accepted that nucleic acids paved the way for single-stranded RNA, which doubled-up to become DNA. But just how that sequence of events took place is an area of intense controversy in origin-of-life research. Just how, exactly, did RNA manage to outcompete its rivals and stick around? Charles Carter, an expert in origin-of-life science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill aims bring the debate into the laboratory, exploring the properties and interrelations of RNA and amino acid chains (“peptides”) found in humans. Carter suspects that RNA and peptides coevolved together, a hypothesis that stands in contrast to the current leading theory that highlights RNA as the key molecule. Carter’s hypothesis is grounded in part in the tight bonds RNA and peptides are capable of forming, bonds that require a strong structural similarity that seems unlikely to have happened by chance if they did, in fact, evolve independently. The team will focus on their efforts on 20 RNA-peptide pairs that play an important role in protein synthesis, the critical cell process that uses DNA as a template, to create RNA molecules which, in turn, create proteins, using complex machinery in the cell’s cytoplasm. First, the team will seek to identify ancestral molecules that could have given rise to these contemporary RNA-peptide pairs. Next, they will synthesize copies of those ancestral molecules. Finally, they will use those copies to perform a series of experiments to determine important structural and chemical properties that would be consistent with the RNA-peptide scenario for the origin of life. Answering these questions would not just give us a plausible historical story about how life did emerge on Earth—it would also tell us something more fundamental about how life can emerge, be it on Earth or elsewhere. 

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