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American scientist's research of life's first cells

For her research of life's first cells, Irene Chen, a regional winner from North America and the Grand Prize winner, today was named to receive the $25,000 GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists, supported by GE Healthcare and the journal Science, which is published by AAAS, the nonprofit society.

Chen will receive her award in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday, 11 December, during an award ceremony. She will also meet with Nobel Prize winners Andrew Fire and Craig Mello during her stay in Stockholm. Irene Chen received the grand prize for her essay, "The Emergence of Cells During the Origin of Life," which is being published in the 8 December issue of the journal Science.

"Dr. Chen has accomplished a remarkable effort at forward engineering the possible origins of cellular behavior," said Dr. Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science. "She created an evolutionary experiment among 'proto-cells' -- vesicles built of membrane materials, some of which contained RNAs functioning as enzymes whereas others did not. Some were favored competitively, demonstrating greater evolutionary fitness."

Chen describes how she has used simple "protocells" to study how life's earliest cells emerged. The protocells consist of a cell's two fundamentals: a self-replicating genome (in this case made of RNA) contained in a vesicle that separates the genome from the external environment. Chen describes how interactions between the RNA and the vesicle's membrane led to the emergence of certain basic cellular behaviors. For example, when the genome replicates inside a vesicle, osmotic pressure leads the vesicle to "steal" membrane from other, empty vesicles. This could be an example of Darwinian evolution, according to Chen. "Exploration of these minimal systems promises to lead to more exciting insights into the origins of biological complexity," she writes. Chen is currently completing medical school at Harvard and plans to continue to
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Source:American Association for the Advancement of Science


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