Chemists fine-tune ideas on how life evolved

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Nov. 28, 2012

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An iPod can store a music library in a wafer-thin device that fits in your palm, providing a vast amount of data at your fingertips. But a human cell, only a few microns across, contains all of the information that made you. And even more remarkable, the first complex cells are thought to have somehow self-assembled from the fundamental building blocks of life.

The Accounts of Chemical Research (ACR) devoted its entire December issue to ideas about this self-assembly process, and how it could have enabled life to emerge from the chemical soup of early Earth and grow increasingly complex. By understanding this process, chemists hope to boost our ability to bioengineer living systems in ways that benefit us, just as computer engineers do with digital devices like iPods.

"Chemists have spent a long time breaking down cells and looking at their individual components," says Emory chemist Anil Mehta. "Now we have a fantastic understanding of these parts. So how do we put them together? How can we, as chemists, get new complex networks to emerge from these components that communicate with each other? We are right on the verge of achieving this."

The special ACS issue was edited by three Emory chemists — Mehta, Jay Goodwin and David Lynn, who are all also part of the NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution — and a University of Utah chemist, Cynthia Burrows.

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