Rutgers scientists discover ‘legos of life’

Biochemist Vikas Nanda is part of the Rutgers team whose work could provide a window into the deep past. After ten years, researchers have found that modern proteins have four parts that they believe are common in proteins from billions of years ago.

When asked why he thinks they were similar Nanda replied, “Because nature is very lazy. Nature is very careful about how it develops new functions, new structures.”

Nanda says the team wrote computer programs, and used powerful video game computers to run the equations and to break down the proteins to discover their parts and functions. He likens it to taking a hammer to a radio, spreading out the parts and determining what each part does.

Already, he says one of the four discovered protein parts is raising a fundamental question.

“There was one that binds an iron sulfur complex. This is very interesting from an origins perspective because there are a lot of theories out there that life may have started in deep sea, hydrothermal vents where you have these iron-sulfur minerals,” said Nanda.

The next step is the laboratory.

“Now that we’ve identified these molecules on the computer, we really now want to synthesize them in the laboratory and test their properties,” continued Nanda.

The four parts have been called the “Legos of Life.”

When asked if the next step in his research in this particular project will get closer to answering the question of how and where life began, Nanda replied, “We hope so. I think that what we have now are some parts, and we’d like to do is put them into a process. We would like to see how could our fundamental units have played important roles in catalyzing earlier reactions that caused life to evolve.”

Nanda says protein engineering already is making contributions to biomedicine. Eventually could the Rutgers team’s findings lead to less reliance on fossil fuels? Nanda says, “Absolutely.”

“I think that what we’re doing by imitating nature, understanding how nature carries out these processes and extracting energy from the environment, we can then mimic the same processes and make artificial solar systems that can take light energy and convert it in to chemical energy,” said Nanda.

Nanda says the molecular engineering field is wide open and will lead to more transformative applications.

Is this a way of saving ourselves? Nanda said, “Absolutely. Absolutely. I think we can’t save ourselves if we don’t understand how we work.”

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