Massive Science/Daniela Sherer
What would an RNA molecule today have to say about the origins of life? We live in a world where cellular life is dominated by DNA, but this wasn’t always the case. The Origins of Life…Again is a speculative look at the future from the perspective of an RNA molecule if she was able to take agency for her own destiny. Instigated by an NSF funded project that is using synthetic biology to investigate the origins of life — RNA imagines a future based on the past, one that leads to insight on RNA-based viruses, the limits of fully synthetic genomes, and potential extraterrestrial life.
We have synthesized functional genomes of viruses, bacteria and simple celled organisms, but are we able to replicate life that no longer exists on this planet? Before DNA became indispensable to cellular life, there was an RNA world in which RNA performed all the functions, produced all the proteins necessary for transmission, replication, and evolution, aka life. RNA can even do the work of proteins...without proteins. Creating an RNA-based organism in the lab that self-replicates would shed light on how we transitioned into our DNA-based world.
This is exactly what our RNA character is investigating as she shuns her repetitive messenger job within the DNA factory to engineer her own likeness. RNA is inspired by the past - a rollercoaster world full of possibilities — as a way to build a new future. Can RNA create an entirely new form of life using new rules, and what does that mean for biology?
If successful, this will (hypothetically?) be the first time in billions of years that cellular life with an RNA chromosome will grace the surface of the Earth. Fully synthetic genomes, including artificial genomes that go beyond what could evolve in known life, will enable us to answer questions about life’s origins and to extend the rules that set life’s limitations.
To animate is to bring to life and animation is a lot like synthetic biology — both have near infinite creative capacity under the guidance of a few rules and certain tools. To match the transformative potential of the research, we took a meta angle and wondered what life itself would think of the origins of life. In creating a figurative universe it’s possible to envision new hypotheses and subvert traditional metaphors within synthetic biology. Metaphors always break down at some point, and the more radical a proposal, the quicker they crumble.
The original research project delves into the cultural aspect of science from the outset and includes an ethics and rhetoric component, pieces to be explored in future animations.
Presented by The Johns Hopkins University.