PMI/PCCM SEMINAR SERIES FALL 2023: Nita Sahai, University of Akron-Ohio

Sep 27, 2023, 12:00 pm1:00 pm
Bowen Hall Auditorium 222


Event Description

Heterogeneous Catalysis by Mineral Surface in Prebiotic Chemistry and the Transition from Geochemistry to Biochemistry

Abstract: A long-standing question in the Origins of Life field is whether RNA, enzymes (proteins) or lipid membranes evolved first because in extant biology, each requires the other. However, a fundamental property of almost all known living systems is that they are mutually-codependent and are optimized to thrive in their ecological niches. Universal biomolecular features across all phyla (e.g., homochirality, mainly 20 proteinogenic amino acids and four nucleotides, 3’,5’-phosphodeister bond linkages in nucleic acids) suggest their emergence in a shared environment. We postulate therefore that prior to the emergence of cellular ecosystems, a protobiogeochemical “geomolecular ecology” existed, that was predicated on the principles of Mutualism, Selection, Catalysis by minerals and dissolved ions in the Origins of Life (MuSeCoL). We take a Systems Level approach based on the montmorillonite-catalyzed RNA polymerization (MCRP) system. The goals of the proposed work are to demonstrate mutual coevolution of RNA, peptides and unique amphiphiles with simultaneous isomer selection (e.g., a-amino acid over b-, g-, d-amino acids configurational isomer selection; L-AA and D-nucleotides chiral selection) as catalyzed by minerals and dissolved metals in a complex, multicomponent prebiotic broth. I will share results from some of our studies supporting this hypothesis.

Bio:  Professor Nita Sahai’s research focuses on the physical-chemical aspects of biomolecular and inorganic ion interactions at mineral surfaces in processes relevant to the origins of life and astrobiology, environmental geochemistry, and biomaterials science. She earned her Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University in 1997. Following an NSF postdoctoral Fellowship at University of Maryland, Prof. Sahai obtained tenure and was a Full Professor in the Department of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin-Madison from 2000-2011. Prof. Sahai has been at the Department of Polymer Science, University of Akron since 2011, and holds joint appointments in the Departments of Geosciences and Biology, and in the Integrated Bioscience Program. Prof. Sahai holds the Ohio Research Scholar Endowed Chair at the University of Akron, is a Fellow of CIFAR (Canadian Institute for Advanced Research), a Fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America, and the Distinguished Lecturer of the Mineralogical Society of America for 2013-2014. She has received awards at various stages of her career, including the NSF Post-Doctoral Fellowship, the NSF CAREER award, and the Romnes Faculty Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prof. Sahai served for six years on the National Academies of Science’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science, which advises NASA. In 2020, she was featured in “Fireball,” an award-winning documentary on meteorites and the evolution of life and human society on Earth, directed by Werner Herzog and Dr. Clive Oppenheimer. She has been interviewed on National Public Radio (NPR) several times and on Public Broadcasting Service channel (PBS WVIZ). Dr. Sahai is the Chair of the prestigious Gordon Research Conference on the Origins of Life in 2025. Prof. Sahai has served on the Editorial board of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, American Mineralogist, Geochemical News and Geochemical Transactions and is currently on the Editorial Board of Astrobiology, Scientific Reports, and Life. She has guestedited two thematic issues of Elements magazine (Origins of Life- Transition from Geochemistry to Biogeochemistry, 2016; and Medical Mineralogy and Geochemistry, 2007). She has also guestedited a volume, Medical Mineralogy and Geochemistry (2006), in the well-known Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry Series. Prof. Sahai’s research has been supported by NSF, NASA, ACS-PRF, the Simons Foundation, NY and a generous private donor for over twenty-five years.

All seminars are held on Wednesdays from 12:00 noon-1:00 p.m. in the Bowen Hall Auditorium Room 222. A light lunch is provided at 11:30 a.m. in the Bowen Hall Atrium immediately prior to the seminar.