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STScI Astrobiology Lecture Series

Universal Biology, the Genetic Code, and the First 1,000,000 Years of Life On Earth

Presented by: Nigel Goldenfeld  (University of Illinois, Department of Physics)
Category: Science Colloquia   Duration: 1 hour and 45 minutes   Broadcast date: October 07, 2016
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In this talk, I discuss what aspects of life are likely to be universal, focusing primarily on the universal genetic code, but also the phenomenon of homochirality. I begin by relating life processes to the laws of physics. Then I show that relics of early life, preceding even the last universal common ancestor of all life on Earth, are present in the structure of the modern day canonical genetic code --- the map between DNA sequence and amino acids that form proteins. The code is not random, as often assumed, but instead is now known to have certain error minimisation properties. How could such a code evolve, when it would seem that mutations to the code itself would cause the wrong proteins to be translated, thus killing the organism? Using digital life simulations, I show how a unique and optimal genetic code can emerge over evolutionary time, but only if horizontal gene transfer --- a network effect --- was a much stronger characteristic of early life than it is now. These results suggest a natural scenario in which evolution exhibits three distinct dynamical regimes, differentiated respectively by the way in which information flow, genetic novelty and complexity emerge. Possible observational signatures of these predictions are discussed.