The Origami of Life

How misfolding proteins may kickstart chemical evolution

Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurodegenerative conditions involving abnormal folding of proteins, may help explain the emergence of life—and how to create it. Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech demonstrated the connection in two new papers published earlier this year by Nature Chemistry.

“In the first, we showed that you can create tension between a chemical and a physical system to give rise to more complex systems. And in the second, we showed that these systems can have remarkable and unexpected functions,” says David Lynn, professor of biological chemistry, who led the research. “The work was inspired by our current understanding of Darwinian selection of protein misfolding in neurodegenerative diseases.”

Lynn’s lab is exploring ways to potentially control and direct the processes of these proteins—known as prions—adding to knowledge that might one day help to prevent disease, as well as open new realms of synthetic biology.

“These protein polymers can fold into a seemingly endless array of forms and sometimes behave like origami,” Lynn explains. This protein misfolding provided the model for how physical changes could carry information with function, a critical component for evolution.

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