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EARLY EARTH DROPLETS AND THE ORIGINS OF LIFE

Tony Z. Jia is a specially-appointed assistant professor and lab manager at Japan’s Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI), based at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He is an astrobiologist and shared highlights from his dual research/management role.

Specially-Appointed Assistant Professor Tony Z. Jia
Credit: N. Escanlar, ELSI

Q: What is astrobiology and what is your specialized area of interest in this field?

A: Astrobiology investigates the origin and evolution of planets, life, and life on Earth and in the universe. It encompasses many fields, including astronomy, planetary science, geology, chemistry, biology and more. Anyone in almost any field can contribute to astrobiology!

My research is lab-based. We simulate processes that aim to reveal the origins of life on Earth, which could help us detect life elsewhere in the universe. Our laboratory simulations utilize the processes and chemicals that were likely present on early Earth to learn how they assembled into compartments that might have resembled the first cells. Specifically, we study the formation of membraneless droplets, which are similar in structure to the non-membranebound organelles in modern cells, like stress granules and the nucleolus. We investigate what these membraneless droplets might have been composed of, and if they can encapsulate other molecules and perform other functions, like growth and division.

Q: What have been your most exciting scientific findings so far?

A: We have observed two completely novel systems that assemble into membraneless droplets that could be relevant as prebiotic compartments.

First, we found that drying alpha hydroxyacid monomers leads to the synthesis of polyesters and rehydrating these polyesters results in the assembly of droplets that can encapsulate or interact with nucleic acids, proteins and lipids. The term polyester often brings to mind textiles or materials, but we believe that their potentially easy synthesis in prebiotic environments and their ability to form compartments with primitive functions shows their relevance to the origins of life and astrobiology.

Second, we have shown that DNA liquid crystals can assemble within membraneless droplets composed of peptides and nucleic acids. Again, most people think screens and displays when they hear the term liquid crystals, but they could have been important for the origins of life!

Polarization microscopy images show typical fingerprint textures indicating assembly of a large population of liquid crystal coacervate droplets.
Credit: Tommaso P Fraccia, ESPCI-Paris 

Q: What does your lab look like?

A: ELSI is very unique. Rather than a hierarchical system, where a principal investigator is in charge of many students and postdocs, ELSI operates in a more flat or hybrid system, with more independent researchers. Most researchers work in a number of different labs at ELSI. Much of my research takes place in Unit B (biology), but I am the lab manager of Unit C (chemistry).

Unit C has around 15 researchers, staff and students. We have a number of general spectroscopy and chromatography instruments. Since ELSI’s research goals are quite broad, we lack certain specialized equipment and often collaborate with colleagues in labs and institutes elsewhere in the country and internationally who have access to instruments we don’t have. The researchers and students focus mainly on research, while lab technicians support researchers by assisting with analyses, maintaining the facilities and with administrative tasks.

Q: What skills have you found are necessary for managing a lab?

A: Managing the lab requires proficiency, efficiency and organization. It involves instrument maintenance and repairs, stocking consumables, budget execution and management, and the management of assets, safety and human resources. Since 2020, COVID restrictions have required cataloguing and sometimes restricting researcher movements in the labs. While we have become more accustomed to the current situation, policies are regularly updated, so we are learning to be flexible and to react quickly to keep in line with university standards, while still maintaining a safe environment. Lab operations would be impossible without support from our team of technical staff.

Jia and his team showed that alpha hydroxyacid monomers, which were found in the chaotic prebiotic Earth soup, can form polyester microdroplets that could have acted as primitive compartments for very early life.
Credit: Tony Z. Jia, ELSI

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

A: Each aspect of my work is very rewarding in different ways. Being able to work with many different collaborators at ELSI and around the world has been really rewarding intellectually. Most faculty do not get management experience before starting their own lab or research group. I consider my management and grant-writing duties as great training for future positions.

I find the mentorship aspect of my job especially rewarding. Many students and researchers, especially in still-developing Asian countries, may not have the same opportunities as their peers from other regions. It is up to us, in more senior or advanced positions, to advocate for them, provide opportunities and be supportive. I believe that it is very important for researchers in Asia to help expand the reach of astrobiology so that more students can have opportunities in the future. To this end, ELSI is hosting the Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) for the first time in Asia this year, and a few researchers around the region have banded together to found the Astrobiology Society of Asia-Pacific. Hopefully, together, we can all help to create a future where there are more astrobiology research opportunities in the region.