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Nobel laureate to deliver distinguished Eyring Lecture Series at ASU

Biochemist Jack Szostak will give the general lecture 'The Origin of Life: Not as Hard as it Looks?' on March 16

Portrait of Jack Szostak.

Jack Szostak, Canadian American biochemist of Polish British descent, Nobel Prize laureate and professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, will deliver Eyring Lecture Series on March 16 and 17 at ASU. Photo courtesy Jack Szostak

March 09, 2023

Jack Szostak is known by many for his significant contributions to the field of genetics.

The Canadian American biochemist of Polish British descent is a Nobel Prize laureate, a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, a former professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and the Alexander Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Szostak's achievements have helped scientists map the location of genes in mammals and develop techniques for manipulating genes. His research findings in this area are also instrumental to the Human Genome Project, and he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres.

On March 16 and 17, Szostak will be the featured School of Molecular Sciences’ Eyring Lecture Series speaker at Arizona State University's Tempe campus.

The general lecture on March 16, titled “The Origin of Life: Not as Hard as it Looks?”, will be presented at 6 p.m. in the Marston Theater in ISTB4, and will also be available via Zoom, followed by a reception in the lobby from 5 to 5:40 p.m.

The Eyring lectures are part of an interdisciplinary distinguished lecture series dedicated to stimulating discussion by renowned scientists who are at the cutting edge of their respective fields. Each series consists of a leadoff presentation to help communicate the excitement and the challenge of science to the university and community. Past lecturers have included Nobel laureates Ahmed Zewail, Jean-Marie Lehn, Harry Gray, Richard Smalley, Yuan T. Lee, Richard Schrock, John Goodenough, Mario Capecchi and, most recently awarded, Carolyn Bertozzi.

The technical lecture, “Why did Biology Begin with RNA and not some other Genetic Material?”, will take place at 3 p.m. on March 17 in the Biodesign auditorium. It will also be available via Zoom.

In the 1990s, Szostak and his colleagues developed in vitro selection as a tool for the isolation of functional RNA, DNA and protein molecules from large pools of random sequences. Szostak’s current research interests are in the laboratory synthesis of self-replicating systems and the origins of life.

The combined efforts of laboratories around the world have begun to converge on a reasonable pathway going all the way from planet formation to the beginning of life itself. Many deeply embedded preconceptions have had to be overcome and discarded in order to enable this progress.

In his general talk, Szostak will explain how overcoming these conceptual barriers has enabled fresh thinking into how the molecules of life were synthesized on the early Earth and then assembled into the first living cells. Once the ability of life to evolve in a Darwinian sense had become firmly established, life was free to adapt, diversify and flourish, eventually giving rise to all the varieties of life we see around us today.

Szostak’s lab is interested in the chemical and physical processes that facilitated the transition from chemical evolution to biological evolution on the early Earth.

As a way of exploring these processes, Szostak is trying to build a synthetic cellular system that undergoes Darwinian evolution. His view of what such a chemical system would look like centers on a model of a primitive cell, or protocell, that consists of two main components: a self-replicating genetic polymer and a self-replicating membrane boundary.

The job of the genetic polymer is to carry information in a way that allows for both replication and variation, so that new sequences that encode useful functions can be inherited and can further evolve.

The role of the protocell membrane is to keep these informational polymers localized, so that the functions they encode lead to an advantage in terms of their own replication or survival. Such a system should, given time and the right environment, begin to evolve in a Darwinian fashion, potentially leading to the spontaneous emergence of genomically encoded catalysts and structural molecules.

Szostak hopes that explorations of the chemistry and physics behind the emergence of Darwinian evolution will lead to explanations for some of the universal properties of modern cells, as well as explanations of how modern cells arose from their simpler ancestors. As he explores these fundamental questions he is also on the lookout for chemical or physical phenomena that might have practical utility in biomedical research.

The Eyring Lecture Series is named in honor of the late Leroy Eyring, an ASU Regents Professor of chemistry and former department chair, whose instructional and research accomplishments and professional leadership at ASU helped to bring the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry into international prominence. The Eyring Materials Center and the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe at ASU are named in his honor.

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