Nobel laureate speaks about the origin of life

By JONATHAN PATTERSON | May 3, 2018

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Noble Laureate Jack W. Szostak spoke at the annual John C. and Florence W. Holtz Lecture.

Hopkins hosted its annual John C. and Florence W. Holtz Lecture on Thursday, April 26. Hosted by the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, this year’s lecture was delivered by Nobel laureate Jack W. Szostak. 

Szostak has made notable contributions in the field of genetics. He was a pioneer in creating the world’s first artificial yeast chromosome, which is a genetically engineered chromosome from the DNA of yeast. This research was crucial for the progression of the Human Genome Project, a decade-long quest to determine the complete set of nucleotide sequences that comprise human DNA. 

He, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Hopkins Hospital Professor Carol Greider, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2009 for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres, a specialized DNA sequence that caps both ends of a chromosome.

His lecture, entitled “The Origin of Cellular Life,” drew a large crowd that nearly filled the Hodson 110 lecture hall. 

At the event, Szostak was first introduced by Hopkins’ Vice Provost for Research and Theophilus Halley Smoot Professor Denis Wirtz.

Wirtz said the day was “extra special” because the University was able to host Szostak. Wirtz was also intrigued by Szostak’s lecture, and felt that even the title alone was thought-provoking.

Following Wirtz’s introduction, Szostak went on to describe what he hopes to learn from his own experiments. 

“My goal today is to talk about how we are doing very simple experiments in the lab to try to understand how the chemical building blocks of life assembled into the first living cells with the potential to evolve,” he said.

Szostak also discussing the importance that astronomy research plays in uncovering the origin of cellular life

Throughout the lecture, he proposed several questions to the audience, including “How were the building blocks of biology synthesized?” and “Cyanide: the source of life’s building blocks?” 

In addition, Szostak discussed how there a several crucial environmental conditions necessary in order to support life. Among these necessary features include a source of chemical energy, a cool climate with brief periods of high temperatures and finally, hydrothermal systems in places like lakes and ponds. 

Currently Szostak is a principal investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as a professor of Genetics at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School. 

The lecture concluded with an audience-interactive session, which included a question about how potential alien life would be different from life on Earth. 

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