Biology professor wins NASA award to conduct genetic code research

PINE BLUFF, Ark. – Dr. Joseph Onyilagha, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has received a NASA award to conduct research into the origin of the genetic code. Dr. Onyilagha explains that the genetic code is the interface between two fundamental biochemical molecules namely, nucleotides and amino acids. The evolution of genetic coding, which is the synthesis of proteins according to genetic instructions, connected the information storage and transmission potential of polymerized nucleotide sequences to the structural and catalytic properties of polymerized amino acid sequences.

His focus is on the idea that the standard amino acid alphabet comprises a mixture of “early” versus “late” members – that is, some amino acids were available prebiotically and were therefore present from the start of genetic coding; others evolved later, as “inventions” of early metabolism.

Dr. Onyilagha will investigate whether a contemporary view of metabolic diversity supports the assertion that pathways of amino acid biosynthesis contain molecular fossils that connect “early” and “late” amino acids. The research is grounded on the proposition that genetic coding began with fewer than 20 amino acids. This “early” alphabet (comprising prebiotically plausible amino acids) was then augmented as metabolism evolved new possibilities, and incorporated them into genetic coding.