Science and Engineering

Texas A&M University

Victor Ugaz
College Station, TX
December 2020

A key unanswered question in the origin of life involves identifying mechanisms that explain how very dilute concentrations of lipid precursors could spontaneously assemble to form protocells under prebiotic conditions.  The small pore networks that permeate mineral formations near undersea hydrothermal vents have emerged as potential hot spots for these processes.  But so far, the physical machinery needed to drive macromolecular synthesis and packaging in these settings remains a mystery.  The PI recently discovered how chaotic thermal convection in hydrothermal pore networks can accelerate these chemical processes.  He plans new fundamental research that builds on this discovery to understand how microscale chaotic thermal convection can orchestrate the assembly of protocells containing targeted nucleic acid cargo.  These insights will lay a foundation to identify new pathways for the spontaneous emergence of metabolic and replicating systems.  Starting with principal phospholipid cell membrane constituents, the research will identify flow states that promote assembly into micron-sized vesicles from initially dilute millimolar concentrations.  Next, the PI will induce simultaneous polymerization and encapsulation of nucleic acid cargo within the synthesized vesicles.  Finally, protocells containing polymerized nucleic acids will be isolated and analyzed using single-cell multi-omic profiling methods.  This screening will, for the first time, rationally link the physical domain of transport phenomena in hydrothermal microenvironments with the biochemical realm of protocell formation and nucleic acid synthesis, making it possible to identify and select conditions that favor assembly of specific sequences.

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