Paleontology, archaeology and chemistry – if I say those words you’re probably thinking isotopic rations, and chemical analysis. But what about peeling back the layers of biological history?

Loren Williams of Georgia Tech has been doing just that with the ribosome, specifically, the large subunit (LSU) ‘where all the chemistry happens.’ X-ray chromatography of the ribozome, that thing some people won the nobel prize in chemistry a few years ago, shows that the core of the LSU is conserved across the tree of life, implying not just a common ancestor but, says Williams, that the core is what the LSU began it’s life as. Peeling back the layers to the core as molecular time travel.

So Williams is working on making a testable model of what the core was, and to establish what the LSU did before it grew up and joined with the small sub unit and started making protein chains. However, it was a throw-away comment in Williams’ talk that really got me thinking. He said that as we look out of the window, or watch a nature documentary, that impression of such wide diversity is an illusion. If you break the ribozyme, meddle with the core of the LSU, life cannot continue. Once that core functionality was achieved, it stayed and at the core of all life, the structure and sequence is almost identical.

Now maybe it’s the long days, but I find that such an interesting concept and relevant to this entire meeting. The convention centre and the hotels are filled with disparate groups of chemists. Different sections that can spend their entire time in a couple of rooms, their niches. Looking at the programme, the science covered seems so diverse but ultimately, at the core the science is the same.

Laura Howes

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