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Exploring Life’s Origins: A journey through interdisciplinarity

Sandeep Ameta, Assistant Professor of Biology at Ashoka University, elaborates on his research that aims at developing synthetic chemical systems and studying functional RNAs to understand the emergence of life and construct “life-like” chemical entities

From my early school days, I had an insatiable curiosity for exploring new frontiers. Science projects were my playground, and I was eager to understand the underlying principles behind them. The complex yet well-coordinated biological systems fascinated me and I was always inclined towards learning the mechanistic aspects that underpinned their functioning.

My professional journey has been a thrilling adventure, filled with diverse scientific disciplines and fascinating experiences. It all began when I embarked on a research path that led me through the worlds of bioinformatics, biochemistry, organic chemistry, biophysics, and the intriguing realm of RNA enzymes (ribozymes). 

I completed my master’s thesis at IIT Bombay, in bioinformatics while simultaneously working on a biochemistry-related project as a VSRP student at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. This dual exposure set the stage for my academic pursuits. Subsequently, I ventured to Germany, where I had the privilege of working in an organic chemistry lab at Heidelberg University. 

My fascination with enzymes and their evolution guided my Ph.D. journey, which focused on RNA enzymes and in vitro evolution. During this time, I experienced my own ‘Eureka moment’ when I evolved a catalytic function from a pool of random RNA sequences. The Ph.D. period also introduced me to the captivating field of the Origins of Life. 

After completing my Ph.D., I embarked on a postdoctoral research adventure at ESPCI Paris, where I explored self-replicating RNA networks. This project involved cutting-edge techniques like droplet-based microfluidics and single-cell sequencing. What made this experience even more enriching was the fact that one of my mentors was a physicist, enabling me to approach biological research problems from a quantitative perspective and that made me feel at ease while working with theorists. 

Upon returning to India, I further extended my work on RNA networks at Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines, National Centre for the Biological Sciences. The journey has been nothing short of eye-opening, continually pushing me to explore the edges of various scientific disciplines. 

My research at Ashoka University is focused on developing synthetic chemical systems with the ultimate goal of constructing “life-like” chemical entities. I am also deeply interested in unravelling the behaviour of functional RNAs in complex environments. We know that biological systems are incredibly complex and highly regulated. However, life on the early Earth likely started with interactions among simple abiotic chemicals. Despite knowing the basic ingredients, we are still missing the recipe. It requires integrating properties of self-replication, heredity, variation, and selection in a compartmentalised system (‘protocells’) which can undergo cycles of growth and division. To address the question of whether life can emerge from collections of interacting molecules forming self-sustaining networks, I’m using self-reproducing networks composed of RNA enzymes. To make the system evolvable, the notions of reproduction-coupled growth, variation, and selection will be introduced systematically.

Representative Image of Prof Sandeep Ameta’s research

I believe that interdisciplinary research is the key to unlocking life’s mysteries and is essential to address questions related to the Origins of Life or the development of synthetic “life-like” systems. The problem of Origins has historically been approached from discipline-specific angles. However, in the last decade, we have witnessed researchers with diverse skill sets coming together to tackle these profound questions. Collaboration across disciplines is the only way to unlock these mysteries. This becomes even more important for the Indian context where only a handful of research groups are interested in solving the problem of Origins. One of my missions is also to gather like-minded individuals and foster a robust research ecosystem dedicated to addressing the mysteries of the Origins of Life from various angles.

My affiliation with Ashoka University has been instrumental in my professional journey. The institution’s openness to diverse research aspects makes it an ideal place for nurturing interdisciplinary research. The Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University boasts a diverse mix of researchers and experts, creating a vibrant and collaborative environment. Here, different disciplines seamlessly intertwine, providing the perfect atmosphere for addressing the research problems that intrigue me. Ashoka is rapidly evolving and equipped with cutting-edge tools necessary for our research. Most importantly, the people here are incredibly helpful and supportive, making it a place where innovative ideas and interdisciplinary exploration thrive.

(Interview conducted by Dr Yukti Arora)

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka