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Mr Aaron Halpern
Darwin Building 6th floor
Mr Aaron Halpern profile picture
  • Post Graduate Teaching Assistant
  • Div of Biosciences
  • Faculty of Life Sciences

Having grown up in Cambridge, I moved to London in 2015 to do a Natural Sciences MSci at UCL. I majored in Cell and Molecular biology with a minor in Astrophysics, doing my 3rd and 4th year projects with Nick Lane in his origin of life lab. I joined the London NERC Doctoral Training Program in 2019 and started my PhD with Nick in 2020.

My interest in the origin of the genetic code is part of a broader interest in emergent informational systems on different scales, including human culture and AI. I also maintain a longstanding interest in Astrobiology which is what initially led me to study the origin of life.

Research Themes
Research Summary

The genetic code is the universal language of life that links informational nucleotide polymers to functional polypeptides. It relies on triplets of nucleotides sequentially specifying amino acids to be added to a protein. In modern life, the code is realised by the translational system, an amazingly sophisticated network of machinery which carefully reads RNA and polymerizes amino acids. It is made up of the tRNA, adaptor molecules which indirectly link amino acids to their nucleotide triplet anticodon, aminoacyl tRNA-synthetases, proteins which regulate and catalyse these linkages, and the ribosome which positions tRNA along an mRNA strand in order to polymerize the attached amino acids in order.

This system is too complex to have existed at the origin of life, so a simpler precursor system must have been present first. Using clues in the conserved features and chemistry of translation, such as tRNA's universal acceptor stem, correlations in the biophysical properties of anticodonic nucleotides and their cognate amino acids, and the fundamental underlying chemistry of amino acid adenylation and acylation, a picture of the original system can constructed. Testing how these basic components might have interacted and whether they can still function in isolation gives us a route back towards understanding the emergence of the genetic code.

Teaching Summary

Quantitative Biology

Methods in Ecology and Evolution
High Performance Computing for Microbiome Analysis
Life Sciences Foundation
Introduction to Genetics

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