LifeHub CSIC: A group of researchers creates a network to unravel the secrets of life and “manufacture” it | Science


Part of the group of scientists from LifeHub CSIC, at the kick-off meeting held last September.
Part of the group of scientists from LifeHub CSIC, at the kick-off meeting held last September.

What is life? How originated? How does it evolve? Is it possible to synthesize it? These are some of the questions around which almost a hundred scientists have gathered in a network called LifeHub CSIC. They try to find the answers to the great enigmas of life, understand the principles that characterize it and “manufacture” it, create biological structures with specific purposes. The coordinator of this group, Fernando Casares, a researcher at the Andalusian Center for Developmental Biology (CABD), assures that it is not a chimera.

Victor Frankenstein, the character devised by Mary Shelley, became obsessed with “the secrets of heaven and earth” to unravel “the mysterious soul of man.” Frankenstein creates a body from different parts of corpses. LifeHub shares that hope of unraveling the mystery of life, but from joining different perspectives of researchers from all fields.

Casares explains that the group “sees life as a phenomenon on many scales” and that the answers have to come from the “combination of experience and ability”: “We are used to a single type of life, of which we are made, organic life; But it is possible that, thinking more abstractly what characteristics it has, and not necessarily the one made with carbon, we get to know what the principles that characterize it are. It is possible that quite plausible conjectures can be reached and also allow us to think about other scenarios outside of the Earth ”.

In this sense, they coincide with the biologist Jordi Bascompte, who considers that “life is almost inevitable when the appropriate boundary conditions exist and, therefore, it is highly probable that, given the large number of planets with the appropriate conditions, I can expect there to be life on other planets. “

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And they are also related to the metaverse, the virtual world that Facebook, Google and Microsoft are betting on. In this sense, Casares comments: “Maybe we have already invented life and we have put it to work without realizing it. They are electronic lives that depend on us, that circulate on the internet, that are replicated, that change, that consume space. Maybe there is already a life that is not organic and that we do not identify as such because they are not made of flesh and blood ”.

It is possible to build structures that can have functions as we better understand how certain chemical compounds are structured within cells and their communications with each other.

Fernando Casares, researcher at the Andalusian Center for Developmental Biology

But there is also an objective in the organic sphere: to manufacture life beyond what has been achieved by biotechnology since Craig Venter (one of the fathers of the human genome) announced in 2010 the creation of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, the first synthetic cell whose genome was synthesized in a test tube.

The coordinator of the scientific group assures that “many people are investigating not so much to generate or to reproduce what already exists by natural selection, but to make structures similar to daughter cells designed for specific purposes, to make cells on demand”.

The group of scientists wants to go further, “reproduce properties of life on demand, build structures that can have functions.” “I think it is possible,” says Casares, “as we better understand how certain chemical compounds are structured within cells and their communications with each other. I don’t see any theoretical impediment ”.

Thomas Carell from the University of Munich presented five years ago in Science effective chemical routes that could form the primeval soup from which life arose. But for the LifeHub scientists, according to Casares, it is not even necessary: ​​“We can perfectly skip the original ones and the chemical reactions that took place to directly start from components of the chemistry that we have today. We would not need to use the same construction materials ”.

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Ten scholarships for young researchers

Those final goals to understand and manufacture life already has a first project: the dark proteome. The T2T Consortium published on June 3 “the first complete sequence of a human genome”. But Casares warns that the number of proteins that a genome could produce and about which we know practically nothing can be 30% or 40% ”. This unknown area is the target of the dark proteome.

César de la Fuente, Princess of Girona prize for scientific research and professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania (USA), has just identified 2,603 ​​peptides (molecules that make up amino acids) with biological functions unrelated to the immune system in the proteome and that, however, have anti-infective activity. Referring to these unknown areas of the body, he explains: “Junk DNA, for many years, was thought to have no function and then, over the years, we have learned that it does have functions. This is a bit the same: it was always there, but we had no tools to find it to look for it ”.

Lloyd Smith, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes in a new review of Science Advances last Friday, a Human Proteoform Project to describe the complete set of protein forms expressed from the roughly 20,000 genes encoded in the human genome. The project would suppose, according to Smith, “a fundamental step in the investigation”. Neil Kelleher, co-author of the work states: “This exciting large-scale project will be organized in a similar way to the human genome to provide the critical information that links the genotype and the human disease.”

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This work opens many paths, from therapeutic strategies to disease prediction or understanding neural connections. To reveal the full diversity of the human proteome and its biological importance, Smith and his team propose to develop a “high-quality and extensive atlas, cataloging a family of proteoforms for each gene.” According to the researcher, “even the most studied genes have unknown proteoforms.” Smith points out the importance of using new technologies, such as the one developed by De la Fuente.

The project started at the CSIC is open and expects to have new young researchers, according to the vice-coordinator of LifeHub, Eva García, a researcher at the Institute of Catalysis and Petroleochemistry (ICP), tells the CSIC. To achieve this, 10 JAE Intro scholarships will be announced, aimed at university students interested in starting a research career. In this sense, García explains that it is about “giving a unique training and attracting talent in another way”. And he adds: “They [los jóvenes] they have the newest ideas and that is why they have to be one of the engines of all these initiatives ”.

The Connection-Life monitoring committee is made up of researchers such as Miguel Manzanares, from the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center; Josefa González and Rosa Fernández, from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology; Juan F. Poyatos from the National Center for Biotechnology; and Germán Rivas from the Margarita Salas Biological Research Center.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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