Tech awarded $20 million for new research center

The department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Tech recently received funding to study the formation of complex molecules such as RNA and DNA. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Astrobiology and Exobiology programs awarded $20 million to a coalition of research teams. The money will support the establishment and development of the Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE) on Tech’s campus.

“Our research team seeks to understand how certain molecules in a complex mixture can work together to form highly ordered assemblies that exhibit chemical properties similar to those associated with biological molecules,” said Nicholas V. Hud, a professor in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the CCE. “Such a process was likely an essential and early stage of life, so we are also working to understand what chemicals were present on the prebiotic Earth and what processes helped these chemicals form the complex substances ultimately needed for life.”

The main objective of the CCE is to understand the fundamental physics and chemistry behind the formation of complex molecules that can carry information and control processes. There is also a focused target to understand the formation of DNA and RNA.

“We will work backward from the complex substances found in living organisms today, such as proteins and DNA and make materials that are a little bit different and simpler in chemical structure,” Hud said. “We will then strive to determine if there were possibly chemicals and conditions on the early Earth that would have given rise to these and similar substances.”

The research is divided into three themes. The themes include identifying potential biological building blocks from the products of prebiotic reactions, investigating the chemical components and conditions that promote spontaneous assemblage of increasingly complex molecules and preparing and characterizing highly-ordered chemical assemblies to study their potential to function like biological substances.

“The first [theme] is primarily on instrumentation development and ultrasensitive analytical techniques development and a sub focus on interface reactions and reactions that occur…between different phases,” said Thomas Orlando, a Professor of Chemistry, Adjunct Professor of Physics and Associate Dean for Energy Research.

School of Chemistry and Biochemistry Regent Professor and School Chair Charles Liotta will lead research for the second theme. This theme seeks to understand the physical organic chemistry of early metabolism. One of the current projects in this theme is looking at solvents and amino acids for non-coded peptide bond formation. Another project is identifying and understanding possible thermodynamic and kinetic chemical sinks of material that is hypothesized to subsequently act as source materials for biological building blocks. Research in this theme related to solvents that could form peptide bonds in prebiotic conditions could lead to new environmentally-friendly chemical processes.

“These solvents, aside from being important in prebiotic reactions have important in industrial projects in making new chemicals because they are green solvents,” Liotta said. “They can be used as solvents and then be recycled.”

The third theme is lead by David Lynn, chair of the Department of Chemistry at Emory University and Ram Krishnamurthy, an associate professor of chemistry at the Scripps Research Institute. This theme of the research looks to develop methods to create polymers and assemblies that mimic natural macromolecules.

Another aspect of the research is the focus on commercializing the research. These efforts are being lead by Associate Professor Facundo Fernandez. Research in the first theme is leading to new methods of analysis that have widespread industrial use.

“Complex mixtures are found in many chemical industries – including petroleum, food and pharmaceuticals,” Fernandez said. “The instruments and protocols we develop to sort through the complex mixtures that result from model prebiotic chemical reactions are going to be valuable to these industries too.”

Research in the third theme could lead to the development of new substances with broad applications in a variety of fields including, therapeutics, diagnostics and drug delivery methods. But the innovation of the research lies not just in the commercial viability of the research.

“It is also important to realize that definitions of innovation vary between disciplines. From our perspective the increase in the fundamental knowledge base of chemistry and physics, as well as the sharing of that information, is indeed innovation. It is not just the spin-off technologies,” Orlando said.

Many of the tools and devices have already been in development for previous projects in related fields. The CCE expects that much of the Center funding will go to pay for the salary of researchers; particularly post-docs, graduate students and even undergraduates. The funding will also go to the CCE’s education and outreach programs.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a complete chemical pathway showing how relatively simple substances can interact with the environment and each other to spontaneously produce complex assemblies that exhibit properties normally associated with biological substances, and perhaps shed some light on the earliest stages of life on Earth,” Hud said.