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Hani Zaher

Unravelling genetics

June 1, 2007

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By Diane Luckow

Scientists caught up in pure science are often seeking answers to difficult questions such as whether it was the chicken or the egg that came first.

Hani Zaher, who is graduating with a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry, is one of those scientists. He’s intent on discovering whether or not ribonucleic acid (RNA) was once the first building block of life—a predecessor to proteins and to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), our genetic blueprint.

"An RNA-based organism would have to contain an RNA molecule that was able to replicate RNA," explains Zaher (right). So far, he and his doctoral supervisor, SFU molecular biologist Peter Unrau, have found an RNA molecule that can connect up to 20 units of an RNA chain, a record for an artificial enzyme that can catalyze the formation of RNA. The discovery has sparked significant interest from their peers.

"It’s a big step towards finding an RNA molecule that can copy itself," explains Zaher. "And if we can find that, it gives a boost to the hypothesis that RNA was once the only compound responsible for both the storage of genetic information and for carrying out all processes in all living things."

Now that he’s graduating, Zaher will continue

his quest at a Howard Hughes Laboratory in Baltimore, MD., where he has a post-doctoral fellowship.

"Hani is an excellent young scientist who has overcome significant adversity in his life," says Unrau. "His PhD thesis was rated as outstanding by an external examiner."

Originally from Lebanon, Zaher arrived in Canada 12 years ago, at age 15, as a Palestinian refugee. He was chosen from among a thousand Palestinian applicants to attend Lester B. Pearson College in Victoria under the United World College program. After graduating from Pearson, he received an SFU entrance scholarship enabling him to begin his university studies toward a medical degree. But two months into the molecular biology and biochemistry (MBB) program, Zaher discovered he didn’t have the heart for medical school; he preferred pure science. "With scientific research you can have a theory, test it and establish laboratory proof," he says.

Still, while Zaher is immersed in pure science, he notes that it is the basis for applied science. "The knowledge we obtain here could be used by others for therapeutic applications," he says. "For instance, drug discoveries." He now plans to become a professor and research scientist.

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