Professor of Genetics, and of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Harvard Medical School
Dr. Szostak received his B.Sc. from McGill University in Montreal in 1972, and then conducted his graduate research under the supervision of Prof. Ray Wu at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1977. Dr. Szostak then moved to the Sidney Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in 1979, and then to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1984. During the 1980s he carried out research on the genetics and biochemistry of DNA recombination, which led to the double-strand-break repair model for meiotic recombination. At the same time Dr. Szostak made fundamental contributions to our understanding of telomere structure and function, and the role of telomere maintenance in preventing cellular senescence. For this work Dr. Szostak shared, with Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, the 2006 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award and the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
In the 1990s Dr. Szostak and his colleagues developed in vitro selection as a tool for the isolation of functional RNA, DNA and protein molecules from large pools of random sequences. His laboratory used in vitro selection and directed evolution to isolate and characterize numerous nucleic acid sequences with specific ligand binding and catalytic properties. For this work, Dr. Szostak was awarded, along with Dr. Gerald Joyce, the 1994 National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology and the 1997 Sigrist Prize from the University of Bern. In 2000, Dr. Szostak was awarded the Medal of the Genetics Society of America, and in 2008 Dr. Szostak received the H.P. Heineken Prize in Biophysics and Biochemistry.
From 2000 until the present Dr. Szostak’s research interests have focused on the laboratory synthesis of self-replicating systems and the origin of life. For this work he received the Harold Urey Medal from the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life in 2011.
Dr. Szostak is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, and the Alex Rich Distinguished Investigator in the Dept. of Molecular Biology and the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Szostak is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"The Origin of Cellular Life"
The complexity of modern biological life has long made it difficult to understand how life could emerge spontaneously from the chemistry of the early earth. We are attempting to synthesize simple artificial cells in order to discover plausible pathways for the transition from chemistry to biology. Very primitive cells may have consisted of a self-replicating nucleic acid genome, encapsulated by a self-replicating cell membrane. A chemically rich environment that provided the building blocks of membranes, nucleic acids and peptides, along with sources of chemical energy, could have led to the emergence of replicating, evolving cells. However, no process for the replication of a nucleic acid genome, independent of evolved enzymatic machinery, has yet been described. I will discuss our recent progress towards the realization of an efficient and accurate system for the chemical replication of RNA.