How Networks Drove the Rapid Evolution of Early Life: Clues from the Canonical Genetic Code

When: Thursday, December 01, 2011 at 4:00 pm
Where: DA 114
Speaker: Nigel Goldenfeld
Organization: Swanlund Endowed Chair and Professor of Physics, Department of Physics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Sponsor: CCNR

Relics of early life, preceding even the last universal common ancestor of all life on Earth, are present in the structure of the modern day canonical genetic code — the map between DNA sequence and amino acids that form proteins.  The code is not random, as often assumed, but instead is now known to have certain error minimisation properties.  How could such a code evolve, when it would seem that mutations to the code itself would cause the wrong proteins to be translated, thus killing the organism?  Using digital life simulations, I show how a unique and optimal genetic code can emerge over evolutionary time, but only if horizontal gene transfer — a network effect — was a much stronger characteristic of early life than it is now.  These results suggest a natural scenario in which evolution exhibits three distinct dynamical regimes, differentiated respectively by the way in which information flow, genetic novelty and complexity emerge. Possible observational signatures of these predictions are discussed.

To learn more about Nigel’s work: http://guava.physics.uiuc.edu/~nigel/