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Frontiers Of Science 2024

Exploring Scientific
Progress Over Time

“Before Cells: How the Components of Life Might Have Come Together”

Presented by Christine Keating
Shapiro Professor of Chemistry at Penn State

January 27, 2024
100 Huck Life Sciences Building (Berg Auditorium)
11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.


Christine Keating.

An important step toward the first cells at the origin of life is thought to have been the collection of certain molecules together to form compartments, and ultimately protocells. These structures would provide distinct microenvironments able to facilitate lifelike functions such as catalytic activity and define individuals that can be acted on by selection. Important classes of prebiotically-plausible precellular compartments include lipid vesicles, which can be thought of as a primitive version of the cell membrane of today’s cells, and polymer-rich droplets called coacervates that are similar today's membraneless organelles. Both types of compartment form by molecular self-assembly and offer different benefits as precellular compartments. This presentation will focus on coacervates as supportive microenvironments for functional RNAs. It will also consider the possibility of a "cytoplasm-first" mechanism of protocell formation, with coacervates serving as a template for lipid membrane formation such that each coacervate droplet becomes the cytoplasm of a resulting protocell.

Christine Keating is the Shapiro Professor of Chemistry at Penn State. Her research interests combine materials science, colloid chemistry, and cell biology with a current focus on compartmentalization by liquid-liquid phase coexistence and its possible functional consequences in current biology, artificial cells and prebiotic scenarios. Keating is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and recipient of the Penn State Faculty Scholar Medal. She has been named a Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar, Beckman Young Investigator, Unilever Awardee, Sloan Fellow, and NSF CAREER Awardee. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from St. Francis College in Loretto, PA, in 1991 and a doctoral degree in chemistry from Penn State in 1997.

Phil Belivacqua.

In 1996, the theme of the lecture series was “The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth and Elsewhere.” That year, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry Robert Minard presented a talk titled “Chemical Evolution and the Origin of Life: Protons to Proteins.” 

Phil Belivacqua, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and head of the Department of Chemistry, will give an overview of the topic and introduction before Keating's lecture.

Bevilacqua works to attain a molecular level understanding of RNA in biology. Bevilacqua’s research and teaching have been recognized by a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, Elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Penn State Faculty Scholar Medal, and a Penn State Distinguished Professorship. He is the author of over 180 publications. In addition, his teaching has been recognized by being designated a Distinguished Honors Faculty Fellow and CESE Tombros Education Fellow and by being awarded the C. I. Noll Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Priestley Teaching Prize. Bevilacqua earned a bachelor of science degree from John Carroll University in 1987 and a doctoral degree from Rochester University in 1993. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder. He joined the Penn State chemistry faculty in 1997 and became department head in August of 2018.