YAM Notes: May/June 2021

By Marty Snapp

Charlie and his associates

Charlie, Qi Zhang, and Abigail Knight

How did life on Earth begin? The prestigious W.M. Keck Foundation has given Charlie Carter and his associates a million dollars to find out.

Scientists presume that life arose from a primordial soup of chemicals about four billion years ago; and somehow, the basic molecules of biological life took root, leading ever so slowly to the dawn of life as we know it. But how? How did the chaos of chemicals become ordered biology?

Charlie, a professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, has been conducting cutting-edge research in this field for years, which is one of the reasons the Keck Foundation chose him to lead this project. He will be working with a pair of Carolina colleagues – Qi Zhang, an RNA biology expert, and Abigail Knight, an expert on mimicking proteins with synthetic polymers – as well as with Hiroaki Suga, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Tokyo.

Charlie and his colleagues have developed a collaborative strategy to test their hypothesis for how tiny chemicals wound up assembling amino acids together in sequence according to a genetic code to form proteins, leading to a very basic biochemistry four billion years ago.

“At a foundational level, all living things depend on their ability to convert information stored in genes into functional enzymes, or proteins,” says Charlie. “This is called ‘translation,’ and scientists have generally understood this process for a long time. But certain details about how this could have happened for the first time at the dawn of life have escaped the attention of the scientific community.”

Naturally, I called Charlie to congratulate him and ask him the typical reporter’s dumb question, “How does it feel?”

“It’s fun!” he said. “It feels wonderful! There’s no two ways about it. This is an opportunity to stay in business. If this hadn’t happened, I would be seriously in need of retiring because there would be no incentive from my department’s point of view to keep me on. I could still be productive because I’d have a library and email and computer, but I’ve lost track of the experimental side of things. This grant puts me right back in the driver’s seat.

“So I’ll be working with other people, who will do the experiments. This is very important to me personally because the experiments address a question that I knew was absolutely central to what I was curious about, but I also knew I wouldn’t have the resources to address them myself.”

This project is a fitting cap to Charlie’s distinguished career, and what a long, strange trip it’s been. “The chair of my department was a classmate of my daughter Rebecca’s in high school, and now he’s my boss. I can’t help remembering an interchange I had with Bob Lehrer when I was in Chicago, when he said, ‘This is good news and bad news. The good news is that you’re going to be famous one day; the bad news is you’re going to be dead.’ Well, I’m still alive, but I’m hardly famous.”

That will change shortly, predicts Mark Chodoff, who told Charlie, “When (not if) a Nobel Prize follows on your team’s eventual success, I will proudly tell my friends I knew you when.”

I called Bob Fairclough, who first met Charlie at second base in a baseball game between Saybrook and Berkeley. “It was a hard slide by me that was totally inappropriate for an intramural game,” remembers Bob, who used to throw what Chris Kule calls the best curve ball he’s ever seen. “Charlie, when reminded of this and my attempt to apologize years later, gracefully claimed he had no recollection of the incident, but it bothers me to this day.”

Bob has been dancing on air ever since I told him the good news about Charlie’s grant. He was one of the few people in our class who actually understood Charlie’s work. The other was Ray Salemme, who passed away in 2019. “I am sure Ray is up there in Heaven cheering and was whispering in the ears of the people at the Keck Foundation about the wisdom of Charlie’s work,” he says.

In other news, Todd Tarbox, a professional writer who has written two books about Orson Welles in addition to a half dozen books for children, was a close friend since childhood of Bill Hilgendorf, our much-missed first Class Secretary, who fell to his death from a mountain in Hong Kong the summer after our graduation. Todd’s latest work, a true labor of love, is a 530-page biography of Bill, featuring insightful comments by Bill’s girlfriend, Star Black, and many of our classmates. The title, taken from a quote by Jorge Dominguez, is I Can Still See His Face: Remembering Hilgy. The book is dedicated to Jim Saxon.

“Early in writing this book, Jim introduced himself, writing, ‘David Foster alerted me to a book you are writing about Bill Hilgendorf, whom I had the pleasure to know at Yale. Dave, Bill, and I played football together for four years. I recall several poignant conversations with Hilgy during our senior year that might prove helpful to you. Bill’s premonitions weeks before he died have haunted me for a long time. Could you be the person to make sense of them?’

“That introduction led to hundreds of communications between us discussing Bill, Yale, and life. In the process, Jim became not only an invaluable and voluminous contributor to this remembrance; he became a good friend.”

Todd is currently in the process of securing a publisher. If you can point him in the right direction, please let me know, and I’ll pass it on to him.