Looking back in time: Saurja DasGupta investigates the origins of life on Earth

Saurja DasGupta, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, attempts to pull back the curtain on four-plus billion years of history to investigate the origins of life itself.

“My lab is interested in studying RNA structure, function, and evolution, and how they relate to each other,” said DasGupta, who will start at Notre Dame in January 2024 after completing his postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center of Computational and Integrative Biology. “But more specifically, my lab has this really ambitious goal, which is to understand how life emerged on Earth.”

Although most probably know RNA from its famous role in the latest COVID-19 vaccines, DasGupta investigates some of its other, less heralded, functions. Specifically, RNA can carry out biological processes as enzymes in addition to carrying genetic information — which makes it a promising candidate for running the biology of the earliest living cells on Earth. DasGupta’s research, meanwhile, replicates conditions found on the early Earth to see how RNA molecules could have laid the foundation of life.

“We recreate the crime scene, so to speak,” DasGupta said. “We try to assemble non-living matter, or chemicals that would have been present on the early Earth, and mix them in the correct order to create models of primordial cells that would behave in a lifelike manner.”

This field of study was an easy choice for DasGupta, who has always been interested in the origins of things. His interest developed through studying biology and chemistry in college, but didn’t really crystallize until he read Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene,” which revealed to him evolution’s power to make extremely complex things from humble beginnings. He thinks that his line of work is one of the most fascinating fields a scientist can study.

“When people…ask you what you work on, it’s a very easy answer,” said DasGupta. “You can always tell them, ‘Look, I want to create life in the lab.’ ”

The origins of life may be a difficult topic for many to tackle, but DasGupta believes that Notre Dame is the optimal place for him to carry out his research. To him, the University’s biggest selling point was its size – small enough to still contain a close-knit community that could collaborate easily, but still big enough to have all the scientific infrastructure that he needed to do his work. Additionally, he described how Notre Dame’s campus and its dedication to investigating fundamental truths impressed him immediately.

“I really fell in love with the beautiful campus, even though it was winter,” DasGupta said. “Here you have this feeling…that you can really pursue intellectual questions on campus. Notre Dame has this tradition of going after really foundational questions in science and philosophy.”

Even though his career is still young, DasGupta has already received several honors and awards for his work, such as a fellowship with the Sigma Xi honor society. He was also named as a finalist in iBiology’s Young Scientist Series.

While not tackling questions on the origins of life, DasGupta described how he likes to write both science articles and songs — which he believes makes him a more effective communicator.

“It gives me a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment,” he said. “And I think all of this has influenced my science in a good way.”


Originally published by John LeSage at science.nd.edu on October 25, 2023.