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Darwinian selection and metabolism


One of the main requirements for life to come about is reproduction
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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So one of the main requirements of life to come about is reproduction, and it needed a class of molecules able to reproduce, and these are the nucleic acids. Proteins can't do that. Proteins can do catalysis, proteins can do special ways of reproduction, but not inherent. You needed a class of molecules which reproduces regardless which sequence you have. Proteins can't do that job. So the proteins might have been on earth before the nucleic acids because they are the simpler... chemically the simpler structures, but they couldn't optimise, they could not start an evolutionary process while the nucleic acid could have done. And nowadays one thinks of an RNA world, one even found that nucleic acids also develop catalytic properties, RNA, ribozymes ‒ which is a word which is in analogy to enzymes but with ribonucleic acids, therefore ribozymes. So that is the...

[Q] First condition...

... first condition is you need reproduction. The second, you need erroneous reproduction. You have to make errors sometime. You have to remain below the error threshold, otherwise your information evaporates and you have... it's gone. But you couldn't bring about any evolutionary change if you don't make something new and that is... one doesn't call it error, one calls it mutation to give it a positive...

[Q] Yes, but this happens automatically because you cannot reproduce 100% accurate. So this is something automatic...

You have always thermal noise in your system, you have the building blocks are stitchy so sometimes the wrong one comes in. And later on the machinery has to refine it. The first nucleic acids of the lengths of tRNAs, seventy to  hundred building blocks, they could have an error rate of percent, that's the natural chemical stability of these complexes. If you want to reproduce the genome of a man with its three billion nucleotides you need much more precise... you need an error rate small compared to 10-12, and for that you need enzymes and you need correction systems which do proofreading... and as you do with language.

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: Reproduction, nucleic acid, protein, catalysis, evolution, RNA, ribozymes, ribonucleic acid, erroneous reproduction, error threshold, mutation

Duration: 2 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008