Peter Unrau

Exploring life’s origins in an ‘RNA world’

January 7, 2010

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By Barry Shell

One popular idea concerning the origin of life on Earth is called the "RNA World" theory.

And last month an SFU research group of molecular biologists submitted yet another paper for publication supporting the theory, which holds that life without DNA—or even protein—is possible.

"There was a time before evolution," says team leader Peter Unrau, "a time before DNA."

Scientists believe that somewhere in the primordial waters of the early planet Earth—about 3.5 to 3.85 billion years ago—a chemical soup formed in some "warm little pond", as evolutionist Charles Darwin called it, or perhaps in an undersea thermal vent.

And somehow, they postulate, the molecules in that pond changed from a chemical to a biological system.

In 2001, as a post-doctoral fellow at MIT, Unrau and colleagues published a seminal paper showing that indeed RNA (a simpler cousin of DNA) could copy itself. That’s a key requirement for life because it allows for a method to "remember" and store biological information.

Shortly after that, Unrau moved to SFU. Last summer, he and his team published a major paper demonstrating that a type of RNA promotes more than one kind of chemical reaction.

If RNA can both remember information and act upon a broad range of different molecules, says Unrau, "then it’s as though it can be both the bricks and the bricklayer, providing a self-consistent way to build and power an early organism."

There are many mysteries yet to be solved regarding the origin of life, but the SFU research group is gaining global recognition for their contribution to the RNA world hypothesis.

Says Unrau, "We are trying to close the circle, so to speak, and build an RNA system that can replicate without the help of protein."

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