UMN researcher Burckhard Seelig wins the prestigious Simons Investigator Award and joins the Collaboration on the Origins of Life

University of Minnesota researcher Burckhard Seelig (BMBB, BTI) has a longstanding interest in how the earliest forms of life may have come into existence. This year, his efforts were rewarded with a 5-year, one million dollar grant from the New York-based Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life. One of two scientists invited to join the Collaboration in 2015, Seelig is part of a 21-member multi-disciplinary team looking at potential scenarios for how life could have started from non-biological matter, and the planetary conditions that could have supported the origin of life.

The goal of this Simons Collaboration is to fund an interactive community of investigators using systems reaching across disciplines, technologies, and institutions to advance our understanding of the processes which led to the emergence of life.

“This collaboration is a unique opportunity,” said Seelig. “There are a number of physicists, chemists, and biochemists, like me, but there are also planetary scientists and geobiologists. So, based on our knowledge of early planetary conditions, you can ask what kind of chemistry could have existed and talk to the chemist to find out what kind of reactions could have occurred. Then you can talk to the biochemists to see what you could make from those chemicals.”

In a field where much of the work is dominated by hypotheses, Seelig works experimentally to investigate the missing link between early non-biological amino acids, building blocks for complex proteins, and the modern alphabet of 20 amino acids that make up life’s universal genetic code.

“Today’s genetic code uses 20 amino acids. It did not start with all 20 right away, that’s for sure, but which ones exactly and in what order? This subject has been mostly theoretical. In our lab, we can actually make proteins using likely earlier versions of the genetic code and we can test them,” explained Seelig.

Dialing back the clock, his lab will test ever smaller alphabets of amino acids for their ability to produce functional proteins necessary for the survival of protocells at the origin of life. “If you have an alphabet of only early amino acids, can you make proteins as functional as those we have today? Probably not. But you can see what functions they have and ask what minimum alphabet is necessary to make a functional folded protein. So far, we don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to investigate with this project,” said Seelig. “The further you go back in time,” says Seelig, “the noisier the picture gets because we have less and less reliable information. We will never be able to really tell how life began, but what we hope to do is come up with realistic scenarios about how parts of this process could have happened. In our case, it’s about proteins.”

The award will fund two postdoctoral researchers and help support basic research, providing a welcome balance for the lab’s ongoing applied research on the synthesis of designer enzymes for medical applications and use in the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Seelig is a faculty member in the College of Biological Sciences Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics and a member of the University of Minnesota BioTechnology Institue.