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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.

 

A screenshot of the live-stream on Friday, June 21.

A screenshot of the live-stream on Friday, June 21.

This afternoon, MBL microbial oceanographer Julie Huber took an enthralled audience at MBL on a dive to the bottom of the sea, via a livestream video on YouTube. If you missed it, there are more opportunities to tune in this week!

Huber is part of an international team of scientists aboard research vessel R/V Falkor, operated by Schmidt Ocean Institute. The Falkor is spending June at the Mid-Cayman Rise, an ultraslow spreading ridge at one of the deepest points of the Caribbean Sea (about 4 miles down). At 6 AM ET/3 AM PT every day until June 29, the team will air live footage of their explorations along the ridge.

The team, which is led by Chris German of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is focusing on two new hydrothermal vent fields, Europa and Walsh, during this expedition. These vents are cracks along the bottom of the ocean that form when the Earth’s plates shift. The scientists are studying the vents from biological, chemical, and physical perspectives to learn more about these dynamic geological formations and the extreme life they host.

Huber studies microbial life around the vents. She is interested in learning more about how the bacteria and Archaea can thrive in the harsh, hot conditions of the Mid-Cayman Rise. (Huber will continue this work on another Falkor cruise that she is leading this fall.)

The team uses an unmanned vehicle, HROV Nereus to explore the floor in-depth. Their live-stream video will be captured on the same cameras used by James Cameron’s DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible on its 2012 dive at the Mariana Trench.

Tune in tomorrow at 6 AM EST to the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s YouTube channel to watch the next Nereus dive live. (Dives may be delayed due to technical issues. Schedule updates are posted here.)

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Eddie Oroyan and Laura Selle Virtucio of Black Label Movement. Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

 

If you see human beings hurtling through space over the Swope lawn this week, stop, watch, and imagine moving molecules in a cell. What you are witnessing is a literally high-impact collaboration between scientists and dancers from Black Label Movement (BLM) company in Minneapolis, which is in residence in the MBL Physiology course this week.

On Sunday, July 8 at 4 PM, the collaborators will present an informal performance and lecture-demonstration, “HIT: When Dancers and Scientists Collide,” in the MBL Club, 100 Water Street, Woods Hole. The lec-dem is free and open to the MBL community and public.

HIT is part of a burgeoning, 3-year experiment led by Physiology course faculty member David Odde and BLM artistic director Carl Flink, who are both professors at the University of Minnesota (of biomedical engineering and of dance, respectively). Called “The Moving Cell Project,” their collaboration initially sought ways to express biological concepts to a lay audience through the dramatic physicality of dance. But they soon found that their exchange was taking them much deeper.

Odde realized that having movers represent a cell-biological process is much faster (and less tedious) than creating a computer simulation, which can take months. “We started to explore the idea of using dancers to literally embody our scientific hypotheses, in order to quickly convey them to other people,” Odde says. “We call it bodystorming,” which is like brainstorming ideas, but using actual bodies.

Black Label Movement dancers Eddie Oroyan and Laura Selle Virtucio perform “HIT.” Photo by V. Paul Virtucio

They also found themselves entering bracing new territory for dance. In “HIT,” which focuses on a cellular process called “microtubule catastrophe,” the dancers were asked to experience the “stochastic, violent pulling and pushing dynamics of molecules in a cell,” Odde says. This led to arresting movement and musical dynamics; the dance is strange but beautiful and compelling. But it also meant Flink had to develop “impact techniques” for the dancers so they could careen and collide without getting injured.

At the MBL, the collaborators are further exploring their hypothesis that “movers can help advance scientific discovery at the leading edge,” Odde says. They are assisted by Dyche Mullins, co-director of the Physiology course, who became involved in the project a year ago; Physiology course students; and 7 movers from Black Label Movement. In addition, any MBL students, faculty, or researchers who want to test out their own hypotheses with BLM are encouraged to contact Odde (oddex002@umn.edu).

To view a brief documentary video on the collaborative development of “HIT,” please go to: http://vimeo.com/30346802

@MBL is firing up the “Photo of the Week” series again! EVERYONE on the MBL campus is invited to participate. We’d love to feature your shots of life at the MBL: what’s unique, intriguing, beautiful, funny, classic. Please send “Photo of the Week” submissions to mblnews@mbl.edu, and include caption information (who, what, when, where, why). Please ask permission from anyone featured in your photos before you submit them.

Today’s Photo of the Week heralds a beloved Woods Hole tradition: the July Fourth Parade. In this photo taken on July 4, 1976 (the Unites States’ bicentennial year), leading the parade as Uncle Sam is the late Albert Szent-Györgyi, a longtime MBL scientist and trustee and a 1937 Nobel Prize laureate. To his right, playing the fife, is Phyllis Goldstein, who will be memorialized this Sunday at the MBL (please see blog post below for wonderful, musical tribute to Phyllis). Many thanks to Allen Rosenspire of Wayne State University, who was an Embryology student in 1976, for sending this photo to MBL Communications.

The 2011 July Fourth parade, which as always will feature whacky and whimsical floats dreamed up by MBL students, will start at noon on School Street at the Children’s School of Science and trumpet its way down Water Street to the MBL campus.

July 4, 1976 Woods Hole parade with Albert Szent-Györgyi (Uncle Sam) leading, and Phyllis Goldstein playing the fife. Photo by Alan Rosenspire

by Amanda Rose Martinez

At 7:15 PM on Tuesday, June 28, the long-cherished, Woods Hole tradition of Folk Singing Night returned to the MBL Club. For 47 years, Phyllis Goldstein, who passed away in January this year, led the event. Her legacy lives on both in the songs she left behind and the generations of folk singers she inspired. “Phyllis was very passionate about the music and about the tradition,” says Jeremy Korr, who grew up attending Folk Singing Night and will lead the event this season. “If I can help everyone sing half as strongly as Phyllis did, then I think Folk Singing will be in good shape.”

Watch the audio slideshow below for an interview with Jeremy Korr. A memorial service will be held for Phyllis this Sunday, July 3 at 4 PM in Lillie Auditorium.

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