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Scientists develop new method to investigate origin of life
Date:9/2/2008

Scientists at Penn State have developed a new computational method that they say will help them to understand how life began on Earth. The team's method has the potential to trace the evolutionary histories of proteins all the way back to either cells or viruses, thus settling the debate once and for all over which of these life forms came first. "We have just begun to tap the potential power of this method," said Randen Patterson, a Penn State assistant professor of biology and one of the project's leaders. "We believe, if it is possible at all, that it is within our grasp to determine whether viruses evolved from cells or vice-versa."

The new computational method will be described in a paper to be published in a future issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The journal also will post the paper on the early on-line section of its Web site sometime during the week ending 6 September 2008.

The team is focusing on an ancient group of proteins, called retroelements, which comprise approximately 50 percent of the human genome by weight and are a crucial component in a number of diseases, including AIDS. "Retroelements are an ancient and highly diverse class of proteins; therefore, they provide a rigorous benchmark for us to test our approach. We are happy with the results we derived, even though our method is in an early stage," said Patterson. The team plans to make the algorithms that they used in their method available to others as open-source software that is freely available on the Web.

Scientists map out the evolutionary histories of organisms by comparing their genetic and/or protein sequences. Those organisms that are closely related and share a recent common ancestor have greater degrees of similarity among their sequences. In their paper, the researchers describe how they used 11 groups of the retroelement proteins -- ranging from bacteria to human HIV -- to trace the evolutio
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Contact: Barbara K. Kennedy
science@psu.edu
818-633-4682
Penn State
Source:Eurekalert  

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