Spring 2019 OoLALA Research Showcase: Celebrating Women in Origins of Life, Artificial Life, & Astrobiology

Sara I. Walker, PhD (Arizona State University)
“Searching for the ‘Laws of Life'”

Currently we do not know what life is, or whether there exist universal laws – in the same sense the laws of physics and chemistry are universal – that describe life. While this may not matter so much for the study of life as it exists at present or in the past on Earth, it is critically important in the field of astrobiology, which seeks to understand life not just on Earth but anywhere in the universe. In this talk I discuss new approaches to understanding what universal principles might underlie living matter, from what happens within individual cells up to the planetary scale.



Sarah M. Hörst, PhD (Johns Hopkins University)
“Planets in a Bottle: Exploring Planetary Atmospheres in the Lab”

From exoplanets, with their surprising lack of spectral features, to Titan and its characteristic haze layer, numerous planetary atmospheres may possess photochemically produced particles of “haze”. With few exceptions, we lack strong observational constraints (in situ or remote sensing) on the size, shape, density, and composition of these particles. Photochemical models, which can generally explain the observed abundances of smaller, gas phase molecules, are not well suited for investigations of much larger, solid phase particles. Laboratory investigations of haze formation in planetary atmospheres therefore play a key role in improving our understanding of the formation and composition of haze particles. I will discuss a series of experiments aimed at improving our understanding of the physical and chemical properties of planetary atmospheric hazes on Titan, Pluto, super-Earths, and mini-Neptunes.



Kate Adamala, PhD (University of Minnesota)
“The Life of our Last Universal Common Ancestor”

The earliest evolution of life included a series of transition from non-living matter, through prebiotic organic synthesis and chemical evolution, towards the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life. Our work focuses on the immediately-pre-life stage of evolution, when chemistry became biology. We create synthetic minimal cells that exhibit some key properties of life, without being entirely alive. Those cells express proteins inside phospholipid liposomes, using cell-free protein expression systems. Thus, represent the latest stage of prebiotic evolution, after the establishment of the Central Dogma. Those cells do not exhibit active homeostasis, but they can maintain separate internal environment, they can grow, divide and evolve. The controllability and flexibility of those minimal cells allow us studying chemical processes underlying major transitions in evolution. In our work, we create synthetic minimal cells expressing complex genetic pathways, with membrane proteins facilitating communication with external environment. Together, this creates a comprehensive system to study the advent of cellular processes on the boundary between prebiotic and Darwinian evolution.