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Examining the origins of life

By Bradley West '13
August 3, 2012

Professor of Biology Anne Walter (left) and Evan Anderson '13 are working together this summer on a reasearch project that explores the origins of life.

Back in December, Evan Anderson '13 approached Professor of Biology Anne Walter about creating a summer research project that would tackle one of the biggest mysteries in science: Under what conditions did life begin forming on earth?

Last summer Anderson worked as a molecular biology research assistant for a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. He gained some valuable experience, but decided that this summer he wanted to work on a project of his own design. That's why he approached Walter and proposed creating a research project through St. Olaf College's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program.

Usually CURI projects are designed by faculty members who would like the assistance of a student collaborator. In this case, however, Anderson came up with the research topic himself and then asked Walter if she would oversee the research and advise him on the project.

Because the project is driven more by Anderson's interests than Walter's, their collaboration has a different dynamic from most other faculty-student partnerships. "Working with Evan is like mentoring a graduate student," Walter explains. "It is an ideal, mutual working relationship in which we both push each other forward, instead of me just telling him what to do."

Anderson read through current research on origin of life issues and prebiotic membranes, and he then began brainstorming ways to join this cutting-edge field. He spoke often with Walter as they crafted a project that would blend Walter's expertise on biological membranes with Anderson's curiosity about the early formation of life. 

"I was fascinated by the purely physical growth and division of cell-like structures in the absence of DNA, which is what inspired my project for the summer," says Anderson, who is majoring in chemistry and math and who would like to pursue a doctorate in biophysics or biochemistry.

The big question driving Anderson's research is "What are the conditions necessary for the development of the first membranes?"

To answer this question, Anderson and Walter are looking for the temperature and acidity at which an oleic acid solution begins forming structures that resemble and function like biological membranes. The goal of this research is to help explain how membranes could self-assemble in the absence of all other life.

"This project is very challenging intellectually because all inferences must come from indirect measurements," Walter says. "But it's also a fun intellectual puzzle with wide ramifications for both practical and theoretical questions."

So far Anderson has been very excited by some of the results of this intellectual puzzle, especially when he discovered that temperature changes can cause large phase transitions in the oleic acid solution. He will present a complete report of these findings at the final CURI symposium in Tomson Hall Friday afternoon.

"This project has been a big change from the work I did last summer," Anderson says. "It's exactly what I wanted to do."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.