Chemical games and the origin of life from prebiotic RNA

From bacteria to vertebrates, life — as we know it today — relies on complex molecular interactions, the intricacies of which science has not fully untangled. But for all its complexity, life always requires two essential abilities. Organisms need to preserve their genetic information and reproduce.

In our own cells, these tasks are assigned to specialized molecules. DNA, of course, is the memory store. The information it encodes is expressed into proteins via messenger RNAs.Transcription (the synthesis of mRNAs from DNA) and translation (the synthesis of proteins from mRNAs) are catalyzed by polymerases necessary to speed up the chemical reactions.

It is unlikely that life started that way, with such a refined division of labor. A popular theory for the origin of life, known as the RNA world, posits that life emerged from just one type of molecule: RNAs. Because RNA is made up of base-complementary nucleotides, it can be used as a template for its own reproduction, just like DNA. Since the 1980s, we also know that RNA can act as a self-catalyst. These two superpowers – information storage and self-catalysis – make it a good candidate for the title of the first spark of life on earth.

The RNA-world theory has yet to meet with empirical evidence, but laboratory experiments have shown that self-preserving and self-reproducing RNA systems can be created in vitro. Little is known, however, about the dynamics that governed pre- and early life. In a recent paper, Yeates et al. (2016) attempt to shed light on this problem by (1) examining how small sets of different RNA sequences can compete for survival and reproduction in the lab and (2) offering a game-theoretical interpretation of the results.

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Three mechanisms of dark selection for ruxolitinib resistance

Last week I returned from the 6th annual IMO Workshop at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. As I’ve sketched in an earlier post, my team worked on understanding ruxolitinib resistance in chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML). We developed a suite of integrated multi-scale models for uncovering how resistance arises in CMML with no apparent strong selective pressures, no changes in tumour burden, and no genetic changes in the clonal architecture of the tumour. On the morning of Friday, November 11th, we were the final group of five to present. Eric Padron shared the clinical background, Andriy Marusyk set up our paradox of resistance, and I sketched six of our mathematical models, the experiments they define, and how we plan to go forward with the $50k pilot grant that was the prize of this competition.


You can look through our whole slide deck. But in this post, I will concentrate on the four models that make up the core of our approach. Three models at the level of cells corresponding to different mechanisms of dark selection, and a model at the level of receptors to justify them. The goal is to show that these models lead to qualitatively different dynamics that are sufficiently different that the models could be distinguished between by experiments with realistic levels of noise.
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Dark selection and ruxolitinib resistance in myeloid neoplasms

I am weathering the US election in Tampa, Florida. For this week, I am back at the Moffitt Cancer Center to participate in the 6th annual IMO Workshop. The 2016 theme is one of the biggest challenges to current cancer treatment: therapy resistance. All five teams participating this year are comfortable with the evolutionary view of cancer as a highly heterogeneous disease. And up to four of the teams are ready to embrace and refine a classic model of resistance. The classic model that supposes that:

  • treatment changes the selective pressure on the treatment-naive tumour.
  • This shifting pressure creates a proliferative or survival difference between sensitive cancer cells and either an existing or de novo mutant.
  • The resistant cells then outcompete the sensitive cells and — if further interventions (like drug holidays or new drugs or dosage changes) are not pursued — take over the tumour: returning it to a state dangerous to the patient.

Clinically this process of response and relapse is usually characterised by a (usually rapid) decrease in tumour burden, a transient period of low tumour burden, and finally a quick return of the disease.

But what if your cancer isn’t very heterogeneous? What if there is no proliferative or survival differences introduced by therapy among the tumour cells? And what if you don’t see the U curve of tumour burden? But resistance still emerges. This year, that is the paradox facing team orange as we look at chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) and other myeloid neoplasms.

CMML is a leukemia that usually occurs in the elderly and is the most frequent myeloproliferative neoplasm (Vardiman et al., 2009). It has a median survival of 30 months, with death coming from progression to AML in 1/3rd of cases and cytopenias in the others. In 2011, the dual JAK1/JAK2 inhibitor ruxolitinib was approved for treatment of the related cancer of myelofibrosis based on its ability to releave the symptoms of the disease. Recently, it has also started to see use for CMML.

When treating these cancers with ruxolitinib, Eric Padron — our clinical leader alongside David Basanta and Andriy Marusyk — sees the drastic reduction and then relapse in symptoms (most notably fatigue and spleen size) but none of the microdynamical signs of the classic model of resistance. We see the global properties of resistance, but not the evidence of selection. To make sense of this, our team has to illuminate the mechanism of an undetected — dark — selection. Once we classify this microdynamical mechanism, we can hope to refine existing therapies or design new therapies to adapt to it.

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