Stockholm 2011

"Origin of Life and Molecular Evolution" was the topic of the 2011 Molecular Frontiers Symposium and Forum LIVE!, which took place May 23-25 at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden. As always, we met some of the most prominent scientists around.

There was a live webcast of the talks, and the Forum LIVE! event, where young people asked questions to the speakers!! You could submit questions via a live chat!

Time: 23 May 2011 - 25 May 2011
Location: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden


Download the program from the 2011 Molecular Frontiers symposium and Forum LIVE!

Program: (Pdf, 450 kB)Program: (Pdf, 450 kB)


Meet the speakers!

Ahead of the symposium, we would like to introduce you to the eminent scientists who will give talks. Can you think of questions you would like to ask them?


Gustavo Caetano-Anolles

Dr. Gustave Caetano-Anolles is professor of bioinformatics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL, USA.

His current research integrates structural biology, genomics and molecular evolution. He is particularly interested in evolution of macromolecular structure. His group has recently reconstructed the history of the protein world using information in entire genomes, traced evolution of proteins in biological networks (see the MANET database), uncovered the origin of modern metabolism, and used genomic information to propose that Archaea was the first organismal lineage to arise from the common ancestor of all life. He is currently exploring the role of domain structure and organization in proteins and the evolution of functional RNA (e.g., ribosomal and transfer RNA).

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Gerald Joyce

Dr. Gerald Joyce, professor in the departments of molecular biology and chemistry at the Scripps Institute, USA, not only studies evolutionary processes in a test tube by investigating RNA enzymes, but applies this understanding in a creative way to develop new chemical compounds. Can you imagine making a molecule that can copy itself (replicate) indefinitely without the help of lots of other proteins or cells? In fact, it was found that two enzymes can work together in pairs to help assemble each other. Once the molecular mechanism was understood, it was possible to develop new replicating molecules that could out-perform those found in living cells. What can these replicating molecules be used for? Some possible applications are for medical or environmental detection of tiny quantities of proteins or other molecules. This show how important basic research in evolution can be - not only to find out about theorigin of life, but how to improve our modern lives too!

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Charles Kurland

Dr. Charles Kurland is professor emeritus at Lund University, Sweden.  His work focuses on the biochemistry and biophysics of the ribosome and the molecular biology of bacteria.
What do bacteria have to do with living cells of larger, multi-cellular organisms such as animal and plants?  It is hard for us to imagine going back in time to before cells existed with a nucleus to house their DNA and organelles such as mitochondria to make energy available to them to ask ‘where did they come from?’.  But studying the molecules of life has given hints that mitochondria themselves were once free-living bacteria which came to live inside other cells.  In yeast cells, over millions of years, the DNA of these early bacterial inhabitants (called ‘endosymbionts’) lost the genes for making proteins that they no longer needed for  survival, and some of their genes even transferred to the host cell’s DNA inside the nucleus!  That is certainly a generous sharing of molecular resources!

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Susan Lindquist

Dr. Susan Lindquist is professor of biology at MIT and Harvard, a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator in Boston, MA, USA.  Her work on protein folding has thrown light on evolution and the roles of proteins in diseases such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
Why is the shape of proteins important?  A protein that is the wrong shape simply won’t work properly inside living cells.  The changed protein may even cause severe damage to the cells they inhabit by changing the shape of other proteins too, as occurs in prion diseases such as mad cow disease and also Parkinson’s disease.  Yet the same change that causes one protein to behave in a bad way could cause another important protein to work even better!

Studying protein folding has led to new evidence for the role of proteins in evolution and shed light on how environmentally acquired characteristics can be inherited by changing the conformation (shape) of proteins, without changing DNA, speeding up evolution.

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Michael Russell

Dr. Michael Russell, a scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, USA, studies the origin of life.  What if the first chemical reactions that we call life happened in very hot volcanic vents in the deep ocean?

If we know more about the conditions and molecular environment at such vents, we may be able to answer this question.  Dr. Russell tries to find out if the right compounds for building life molecules could have accumulated to concentrations that would make the first reaction of life possible.  Could the small cavities in volcanic material have served as the first little test tubes for life’s chemistry?

Finding the answers to these questions may tell us a lot about where we humans and all other life came from.  And if life came from volcanic vents in the ocean that also means life probably didn’t come to Earth from outer space or begin anywhere else.

Or what do you think?

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Joan Steitz

Dr. Joan Steitz is professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry of Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Yale University in New Haven, RI, USA. 

In her laboratory, Dr. Steitz leads research in the different roles of the RNA molecule in the cells.  Ribonucleotide acids, or RNA, is a type of molecule that is similar to DNA in that it can carry genetic information.   We have known for a long time that RNA helps in the making of a protein according to its specific gene.  But RNA also carries out several other tasks in the cell.   Dr. Steitz and her coworkers discovered RNAs that join proteins to form small nuclear ribonucleoproteins (snRNPs) and how these function.  She is also studying the roles of RNA in cells that are infected by certain viruses.  Could these viral RNAs explain how serious diseases like cancer and autoimmune conditions like lupus occur?  Dr. Steitz may be on her way to find out!

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Jack Szostak

Jack SzostakDr. Jack Szostak is a Howard Hughes investigator and professor of genetics and molecular biology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, USA.

How did life first begin?  Nobody knows for sure.  But experiments that Dr. Szostak and his colleagues perform in his lab are coming close to creating a model of how the first organisms could have started.  They design molecular systems that can reproduce and evolve inside a contained space—systems that resemble a living cell.  Their work, whether it perfectly reproduces the first living organism that emerged some 4 billion years ago or not, can help answer many questions of how life first started.  How do you think life began?

Dr. Szostak has also made great discoveries in other areas of molecular biology.  In 2009, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for explaining the function of telomeres, special DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes.


Eske Willerslev

Dr. Eske Willerslev is professor of biology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, using modern technology to unravel the secrets of evolution by analyzing ancient DNA samples.
Studying ancient DNA, including ancient human DNA, has many more difficulties than taking DNA from living organisms in order to make comparisons to determine evolutionary relationships – but the rewards for developing techniques to do so can reveal remarkable insight into the past.  The similarities and differences with other living organisms which can be examined are no longer limited to external characteristics, but can now reveal metabolic mechanisms too.  How can bacteria stay buried in ice for half a million years and still come alive in the right conditions? Remarkably, the way they do this can be explained by cellular metabolic activity and DNA repair.  What else can we find out about evolution by studying ancient DNA preserved in ice?

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