Research at Rensselaer

Professor recognized for research on life

Research about origins of life cover RNA, DNA, effects of ultraviolet light on atmosphere

On Thursday, April 19, Professor of Chemistry James Ferris received recognition from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for his more than 40 years of research into the origins of life on Earth. Ferris was awarded NASA’s 2012 Astrobiology Certificate of Appreciation for his contributions to the field.

Ferris explained that one of his main areas of focus is determining exactly when and how life originated. “We may be getting closer to the answer,” said Ferris. Particularly, he studied the reactions of nucleotides in RNA and DNA. RNA, he mentioned, is believed to have developed first, followed later by DNA. Ferris described the differences between the two macromolecules. They deviate primarily in the fact that RNA is made up of one hydroxyl group while DNA contains two. This led to varying characteristics, especially in terms of how catalytic the molecules are; RNA is much more catalytic than DNA.

According to Ferris, DNA plays a particular role in that they form longer oligomers than RNA, leading to the creation of polypeptides. In essence, DNA catalyzes the formation of protein. These proteins carry out many of the reactions that Ferris and other scientists believe may have led to life.

Ferris has also been studying reactions involving RNA. He and his colleagues have been attempting to artificially catalyze the formation of monomers into longer polymers, some of which contain as many as 50 monomers. The material they have developed to successfully do this is a clay molecule known as montmorillonite. It is believed that the reaction takes place because the clay molecules bond directly to the monomers. They are now able to create desired reactions of RNA in aqueous solutions containing this molecule.

Apart from his study of RNA and DNA, Ferris has also looked at the effect that ultraviolet light has on the atmospheres of planets and their moons. The molecules in the atmosphere absorb the light in different ways. He mentioned that Jupiter’s atmosphere contains large amounts of methane and ammonia. The ultraviolet light, when absorbed by these substances, leads to the formation of longer polymers that carry out reactions. These reactions result in the unique characteristics observed on Jupiter.

Ferris has focused much of his time on studying this ultraviolet effect on the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan is unique, he said, because of its “very large atmosphere.” The compounds in its atmosphere, after absorbing light, have led to the creation of “dark polymeric material.”

Ferris has also been able to successfully bring groups of people together to conduct research on the origin of life. He takes an interdisciplinary approach, finding researchers who focus on biology, chemistry, astronomy, and many other fields. This is necessary because, to make progress with their studies, they “need people with expertise in these various areas.” To accomplish this goal, Ferris helped form the New York Center for Studies on the Origins of Life, which was funded by NASA. Ferris served as director of the center from 1998 to 2006.

As a director and as a professor, Ferris said he has also been successful at getting money to fund research conducted by himself and others. Much of this funding has been in the form of grants from federal sources such as NASA.

Ferris received his recognition at a special session during a conference at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. It occurred as a two hour meeting, during which eight scientists discussed Ferris’ research and its importance in determining the origins of life. While Ferris himself didn’t speak during this meeting, he said that it was an interesting experience.

Ferris acquired a bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania. His doctorate came from Indiana University, and he studied heavily at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ferris became of member of the RPI faculty in 1967. Since then, he has been received a Career Award from the National Institute of Health and the Oparin Medal from the International Society for the Study of the Origins of Life. He became a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, served as editor of the Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere scientific journal, and served as chair of the National Academy of Sciences Task Force on Organic Environments in the Solar System.

While Ferris no longer serves as director for NYCSOL, he said that it has managed to keep going. As for the research and studies, he mentioned that they are “making progress.”