News Release

With a $4.3 million NASA grant, U of M faculty member to lead efforts aimed at disentangling the origins of protein translation

Graphic showing RNA translation to protein
Credit: NASA

With support from a $4.3 million National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant, the University of Minnesota will be the home of a new Interdisciplinary Consortium for Astrobiology Research (ICAR) program that explores the origins of life. Led by Burckhard Seelig, an associate professor in the College of Biological Sciences, the global research effort includes scientists from five institutions.

The origin of life on earth — and the possibility of life on other planets — is a captivating mystery. While for some astrobiology researchers this means exploring planetary systems, for Seelig and his colleagues it means studying biochemistry in cellular processes. The collaborative research team will work in the lab and with models to generate potential scenarios for the rise of proteins.

DNA — often touted as the blueprint of life — contains “instructions'' that cell machinery ultimately converts into proteins. Proteins carry out nearly all key functions in cells, whether in animals, plants or fungi. DNA goes through two major processes before it fulfills its mission as the “blueprint,” known as transcription and translation. Translation — moving from RNA to proteins — requires numerous proteins, but it also produces proteins.

“After decades of study, scientists know how to make a protein and that natural selection can drive changes in proteins, but we don’t really understand where the first proteins came from,” said Seelig. “The question on how these processes arose is a chicken or the egg problem.”

Proteins are made up of amino acids. When just a few amino acids join together, it’s known as a short polypeptide chain. With this grant, Seelig’s major aim is to figure out how small peptide chains might have been useful for a cell, even before the translation machinery was in place. Seelig describes it as being “a little bit like trying to imagine writing short words with a very primitive alphabet.”

The twenty amino acids in the alphabet that biology uses today can produce an extraordinary number of proteins, which equates to full length novels. In the very early days, short peptide chains might have looked more like short sentences using fewer letters. If these were useful to the cell, however, there would be selection for machinery that could produce those short peptides.

The researchers aren’t looking to determine the exact rise of translation, but they’re hoping to come up with potential scenarios. By better understanding how cells became more complex, researchers will inch closer to solving the mystery about what is necessary for life. This will allow them to learn more about the origin of life on Earth and look to the potential of life on other planets.

This project, called "Emergence of a complex biochemical system: Evolutionary aspects of the path to coded protein synthesis,” is funded by a NASA ICAR program. Learn more from NASA. The research team comprises of six faculty from five institutions, including collaborators and a consultant from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of California Los Angeles, Harvard University, University of Akron, and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.


About the College of Biological Sciences
The College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota is one of two colleges in the United States dedicated to the biological sciences with undergraduate majors and graduate programs that cover the spectrum of life from molecules to ecosystems. Learn more at