When Rancho Santa Fe resident Gerald Joyce studies the origins of life on Earth, he doesn’t need to climb into a time machine. Instead, he can learn about the mechanisms of life forms dating back billions of years from the contents of a test tube in his lab at the Salk Institute in La Jolla.
Joyce, a professor in the field of in vitro evolution, studies the building blocks of life, specifically, RNA or ribonucleic acid, molecules that can replicate themselves in a test tube, and even carry out Darwinian evolution by mutating and adapting to their environment.
For his work as a pioneer in studying the origins of life, Joyce was elected in June to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which counts among its members 460 Swedish scientists and 175 foreign researchers, which he called a “great honor.”
“I have deep respect for that institution, which was founded almost 300 years ago and has been a beacon for scientific quality and international scientific collaboration,” Joyce wrote in an email. “I’ve lectured at the “KVA” (Royal Swedish Academy) five times and look forward to returning there for the first time as a foreign member. One of my most memorable visits was in 2009 to give a public lecture on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.”
Salk Institute President Rusty Gage congratulated Joyce in a prepared statement. “Jerry’s contributions to our understanding of the origins of life, and to the evolution of the molecules that sustain it - DNA and RNA - are immeasurable,” Gage said. “We could not be happier about his well-deserved election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences as a foreign member.”
Joyce, 62, has been a professor at Salk for two years. Previously, he was a professor at the Scripps Research Institute. He earned both his doctorate in chemistry and a medical degree at UC San Diego, and performed his doctoral research at Salk.
RNA is believed by scientists to be among the earliest forms of life on earth, predating DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, said Joyce. By gaining a better understanding of those origins, he said, researchers hope to develop new molecules that can disrupt or cure diseases, or tackle other challenges, from growing a better tomato to fighting climate change.
“You can use that technology to make desirable molecules,” Joyce said.
In seeking to understand and replicate the processes that led to life on Earth, Joyce is wading into an area that remains controversial, even among scientists — what does it mean to be alive? Joyce said most scientists would agree on a key characteristic of living systems, “They are capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”
That means molecules containing genetic information that can evolve through mutation, natural selection and reproduction. Those molecules that are best suited to their environment replicate the most, while those that adapt poorly are less likely to reproduce, he said.
“That’s basically the game. That’s evolution,” Joyce said.
Joyce and his colleagues achieved evolution of molecules in the test tube about a decade ago, and the resulting publicity included a front-page story in the New York Times.
In those earlier experiments, the molecules contained a relatively small amount of genetic information, and were able to replicate themselves. The next step, he said, is to create molecules that can, through evolution, achieve new functions, which he called “open ended evolution.”
That type of evolution happened on the planet, leading to life as we know it today, he said. Joyce and his fellow researchers at Salk are now attempting to create a system so powerful that it creates new functions, much like the evolutionary processes that have occurred in nature. That task will involve molecules containing a larger amount of genetic information.
In addition to his work at Salk, Joyce is also director of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, or GNF, which is also in La Jolla.
In that capacity, he oversees a staff of 550 people working on discovering new drugs. The institute’s work has led to U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of four drugs, including one that treats a form of multiple sclerosis, which previously had no treatment.
Joyce often splits his day between Salk and GNF, a trip he said he can make in about eight minutes without speeding.
Both jobs are immensely satisfying, he said. “It’s a privilege to be able to do both,” he said, but admitted he doesn’t get a lot of sleep.
Joyce and his wife, Nancy McTigue, have lived in Rancho Santa Fe since 2002. The couple, who met in medical school, have two grown children. McTigue, a psychiatrist, closed her practice in 2007 to focus on painting, and she is a member of the Rancho Santa Fe Art Guild. Joyce and McTigue were married at the Salk Institute, which is famed for its architecture as well as its scientific achievements.