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Without reproduction there would be no evolution


When did the genetic code originate?
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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There are these molecules which are the adapters of the genetic code. That means each codon, that means a triplet of these nucleic acid building blocks, is associated with an amino acid. And the question is: when did this code originate? Now we know that the recognition between the codon and the amino acid has to be mediated by an adapter which we call tRNA. And nowadays there are many sequences of tRNA known, so that we can do two types of studies. We can look at a given tRNA, and look at the same molecule in different organisms, and then construct from those sequence similarities, among these can reconstruct a phylogenetic tree. And the other one is we can take a given organism and take all its tRNAs, they must have occurred when the genetic code came about, and look at these families of all the tRNAs for all the different organisms.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: Codon, genetic code, nucleic acid building blocks, amino acid, phylogenetic tree, tRNA

Duration: 1 minute, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008