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Master's Project on the Origin of Life

  • Are you interested in deep, fundamental questions about the nature of life and evolution?
  • Would you like to learn and help develop the theories that explain how evolution works and where we come from?
  • Contact: Enrico Sandro Colizzi

Group: Mathematical Biology, Mathematical Institute and Institute of Biology, Leiden University
The RNA world is hypothetical period in the history of evolution that occurred almost
4 billion years ago, and immediately preceeded cellular life. In this world, RNA molecules
stored genetic information, similarly to modern genomes, and catalysed chemical
reactions, like modern proteins. Over long evolutionary timescales, RNAs increased in
genetic, metabolic and regulatory complexity, eventually evolving into modern cellular
life, where genetic information and catalytic functions are chemically distinct.
Project questions:
  • What evolutionary principles underlie this increase in complexity?
  • How does the division of labour between genetic information and catalytic function evolve in the RNA world?
  • How do multiple RNAs coordinate their functions and their replication before cellular organisation emerged?
Answering these fundamental questions requires developing computational and
mathematical models that simulate the evolution of self-replicating RNA molecules.
What you will learn:
A great deal about evolutionary dynamics: you will find that your results obtained in the
RNA world are very general, and apply to modern evolution as well. You will learn how to
develop different types of models, and which ones are best suited for answering different
types of questions. You will get to brush up some bioinformatics, organic chemistry and
statistical mechanics, You will learn some interesting mathematics, and at least one
programming language.