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By Laurel Hamers

The evolutionary path from single-celled organisms to complex species with higher-order thought processes has been mapped out with some degree of certainty, but how the earliest life forms appeared has proven a more difficult question. What conditions prompted organic molecules to assemble into the building blocks of life?

At the recent Origin of Life Symposium in Lille Auditorium, hosted by the MBL Physiology course, a panel of four distinguished scientists shared their research and opinions on this complex topic.

“What makes this a really important question is not only that it’s fundamental to how we understand biology as a process of living systems, but it’s also really important to how we think about the fate of this planet,” said Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, Physiology course co-director and a principal investigator at the Eunice K. Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy IV – Composite. Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/CXC/STScI - NASA JPL Photojournal: PIA12348.

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy IV – Composite. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/CXC/STScI – NASA JPL Photojournal: PIA12348.

The first speaker, MBL Distinguished Scientist Mitchell Sogin, gave a broad overview of historical and current theories on the origin of life, with an emphasis on the role of geological diversity. Different geological microenvironments could have generated the building blocks that eventually combined to create habitable environments, he said.

Jack Szostak, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and 2009 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, took the stage next. He described the problem as a step-by-step process.

“We’re not worried so much about defining exactly where life began,” he said. “I think what’s important is to understand the pathway. There’s a whole series of processes from simple chemistry to more complicated chemistry, building up the building blocks of biology,” Szostak said. “The goal for the field for the moment is to understand one continuous pathway from chemistry to biology.”

Nilesh Vaidya, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, discussed research on spontaneous RNA assembly that he had carried out as a graduate student at Portland State University. By demonstrating that small RNA fragments can form cooperative networks that evolve toward greater complexity, he argued that early RNA-like molecules might have used a similar tactic to support the emergence of early life.

Tony Hyman, managing director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, offered a different perspective, focusing on how cytoplasmic organization may have fostered an environment conducive to the formation of early life. He argued that phase separation of organic molecules due to cytoplasmic organization would concentrate these molecules in certain spaces and facilitate reactions that might not occur at lower concentrations.

A group discussion at the end helped symposium attendees to integrate the topics that the four researchers had presented.

The purpose of the symposium was not to reach a conclusion about the origins of life—the speakers all admitted that this was a daunting, and likely impossible, task. Rather, by bringing together eminent researchers in the field, the symposium organizers hoped to foster discussion between scientists addressing the same question from different angles.


Adam Cohen instructing in the MBL Physiology course in 2014.
Credit: Tom Kleindinst

Adam Cohen, a faculty member and former student in the MBL’s Physiology course, is one of three winners of the inaugural Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. The awards, given by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences, honor exceptional young U.S. scientists and engineers. Each laureate receives $250,000 – the largest unrestricted cash prize for early-career scientists. Cohen is Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and Physics at Harvard University, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

Cohen was recognized for “significant breakthroughs in cellular imaging that allow for the observation of neural activity in real-time, at single-cell resolution.” Combining his expertise in chemistry, physics, and biology, Cohen uses microscopy and lasers to develop noninvasive methods of visualizing and studying the roles of cellular voltage in neurons. His novel techniques, including fluorescent voltage indicators derived from microbial rhodopsins, help to answer questions about the propagation of electrical signals and could one day lead to the design of individualized treatments for conditions such as ALS, epilepsy, and bipolar disorders.

“Cohen is recognized as one of the nation’s most promising young scientists,” said Vern Schramm, Ruth Merns Chair in Biochemistry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a member of the 2014 Blavatnik Awards National Jury.

The two other 2014 Blavatnik National Laureates are Rachel Wilson, Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard University and an HHMI Investigator, who was recognized for her research on sensory processing and neural circuitry in the fruit fly; and Marin Soljačić, Professor of Physics at MIT, recognized for his discoveries of novel phenomena related to the interaction of light and matter, and his work on wireless power transfer technology.

The Blavatnik Family Foundation is headed by philanthropist Len Blavatnik, founder and chairman of Access Industries, a privately held U.S. industrial group.

Neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg, an alumna of MBL’s Neural Systems and Behavior (NS&B) course, was one of 24 people to be named a MacArthur Fellow this week by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Nirenberg, whose research focuses on deciphering the neural “codes” that transform visual stimuli into signals the brain can understand, is an associate professor in the Physiology and Biophysics department at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Nirenberg says NS&B, which she took in 1986, “was one of the best things ever. Worked hard,
played hard, learned so much so fast!” She also lectured in the MBL’s Methods in Computational Neuroscience course in 2012. MacArthur Fellows receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000.

By Aviva Hope Rutkin

WOODS HOLE, Mass.–Back by popular demand, “Bodystorming,” a high-energy dance performance/demonstration presented by Black Label Movement of Minneapolis and the MBL Physiology course, will be held Sunday, July 21, in the MBL Club, 100 Water Street.The informal event, which is free and open to the public, is part of the MBL’s 125th Anniversary celebration. There will be two showings: 4 PM and 5:30 PM.

“Bodystorming” is an exciting new movement technique invented collaboratively by dancers and biologists that inspires powerful, athletic  dances as well as insight into cellular dynamics.

Over the past few years, Black Label Movement (BLM), directed by Carl Flink, has been collaborating with MBL Physiology course faculty member David Odde on “The Moving Cell Project.” By having the dancers physically represent cells and molecules, they are exploring the idea of “using dancers to literally embody our scientific hypotheses, in order to quickly convey them to other people,” says Odde, who is a biomedical engineer at University of Minnesota. “We call it bodystorming, which is like brainstorming ideas, but using actual bodies.”

Over the winter, the collaborators published an article, “Science + Dance = Bodystorming,” in Trends in Cell Biology. They also performed at a TED MED Conference. BLM is currently in residence in the MBL Physiology course, following up on a successful residency last summer.

“Bodystorming” is generously supported by the MBL Education Office, the MBL Associates, Larry Pratt and the Doherty Fund at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the University of Minnesota Institute for Advanced Study.



Members of Black Label Movement in Woods Hole, Summer 2012. Credit: Dyche Mullins



What happens when graduate students in biology are given the freedom to play, dabble in new fields, launch into the unknowns of genuine research, not worry about getting “good” results?

In the case of the MBL Physiology course, one outcome has been—paradoxically—an extraordinary level of new knowledge and publications generated by student-and-faculty teams.

In the Dec. 21 issue of Science magazine, several scientists who have directed the Physiology course detail their winning formula for instilling in students the passion for and ability to conduct “real research,” as lead author Ron Vale of University of California, San Francisco, describes it.

The article presents the overwhelmingly positive feedback from a poll of Physiology course alumni from 2004 to 2010; and the remarkable list of 23 research papers and 59 meeting abstracts that developed out of Physiology course projects from 2005 to 2012.

Physiology course students, faculty, and family members with a sand sculpture they made of the mitotic spindle. Photo courtesy of Ron Vale.

Vale and Tim Mitchison of Harvard Medical School co-directed the Physiology course from 2004 to 2009 and revamped it in significant ways: (1) an equal number of students from cell biology and from physical sciences are admitted (2) students go through a “boot camp” to learn research techniques outside their fields and to begin thinking and stretching beyond their comfort zones (3) faculty give students the kernel of a “real” research problem – not an exercise – and the students develop an experimental plan, reporting back on what they found at the end of 11 intense days (often working 14 hours a day!)

And if they find nothing? Not a problem! “That’s most of what is going on!” Vale says. “Learning from failure is a crucial part of being a scientist.” The atmosphere the course intentionally creates is “intense, yet low-risk,” minimizing “the fear of failure or of appearing ignorant, factors that impede students, as well as senior scientists, from venturing into new fields or learning new approaches,” the article states.

Very often, students and faculty become so inspired by a research problem that they continue to work on it after the course ends, at their home institutions. That is how the seven-week Physiology course has generated so many publications.

The positive impact on students is evident from the alumni poll, which includes comments like, “I am now much more likely to try new experiments even though they seem nearly impossible. This attitude has had a very positive influence on the fun I have being a scientist, which is also reflected in the results.”

“People have a tremendous amount of fun in the Physiology course, whether their project gets a good result or not,” Vale says. “They appreciate the experience of going after a real research problem, of being surrounded by faculty and fellow students who are excited by the thrill of the chase … We are trying to learn something new, and we don’t necessarily know how to get there. That is science!”

The current co-directors of the Physiology course, Dyche Mullins of University of California, San Francisco, and Clare Waterman of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, have preserved the basic structure and spirit that Vale and Mitchison brought to the course.

Physiology is one of 22 courses the MBL offers for advanced, laboratory-based research training in fields such as cellular physiology, embryology, neurobiology, and microbiology.


Vale RD, DeRisi J, Phillips R, Mullins RD, Waterman C, and Mitchison TJ (2012) Interdisciplinary Graduate Training in Teaching Labs. Science 338: 1542-1543.

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