October 12, 2006
LIVERMORE, Calif. -- OCTOBER 12, 2006 Scientists spend a significant portion of their careers, and some even spend their lifetimes, exploring important questions. For Washington, D.C.-area (Chevy Chase, Md.) native and future scientist David Horning, the prospect of doing so is exciting, as he will join the scientific effort to answer one of the most basic and most essential questions of all, What is the origin of life?
Im undeniably motivated by a certain aesthetic interest in knowing how it all began, Horning, 23, says. Studying lifes origin helps us define the minimal criteria necessary for life, and perhaps provides us the tools to recreate these minimal criteria in the laboratory. Horning adds that once developed, synthetic living systems can be used to greatly expand our ability to evolve new molecules, and perhaps even new organisms.
Horning is one of 15 graduate students selected from more than 670 across the country to receive a full five-year fellowship from the prestigious Fannie and John Hertz Foundation. Horning will use his Hertz Fellowship to study directed evolution in the Joyce Laboratory, Department of Molecular Biology and Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.
Of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, Hertz Fellows receive up to $240,000 each in support to pursue their own scientific interests with the best academicians at top research universities in the United States. This no-strings-attached support gives Hertz Fellows financial independence from the constraints many graduate students face of having to choose a university or a research project because of its funding.
After a competitive application process, Hertz Fellows are chosen for their creativity and leadership as well as for their achievements in science, says John Holzrichter, PhD, Hertz Foundation president. These young people represent the future of science in America, and the results of their research will make a significant contribution to the ongoing spirit of innovation in this country.
For his part, Horning keeps busy with innovative scientific research. His main project is finding a way to recreate a key molecule thought to exist during the very origin of life the RNA self-replicase. A close relative to DNA, RNA takes genetic information stored in DNA and translates it into protein, which directs most of the functions of an organism. Many scientists believe that RNA existed long before DNA and protein, performing both the genetic and functional roles of those two molecules in a system that is much simpler, and thus more plausible as an early organism.
If you could put self-replicating RNA in a cell-like structure that grows and divides, you would have the simplest possible cellular organism, Horning says. But because RNA organisms are probably long extinct, we have to create an RNA replicase from scratch, which we believe is possible using a process called directed evolution. Mimicking such an early evolving system may allow the evolution of a variety of entirely novel enzymes.
Directed evolution has produced amazing results to date, including new medicines, tools for chemical synthesis and biotechnology applications, according to Horning. In the future, directed evolution may yield new enzymes, entire biochemical pathways or even designer synthetic organisms.
For as long as Horning can remember, hes been interested in science. Even as a toddler playing with Lego toys, Horning would build interesting structures, and then experiment with his creations to see what kind of games he could play with them. Horning still operates this way today, except instead of plastic bricks he uses evolution, with the ultimate goal of providing a great benefit to humanity in the process.
Horning is a 2001 graduate of Landon School, Bethesda, Md., where he was valedictorian. He holds a bachelor of arts in physics from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., where he graduated magna cum laude in 2005. In addition to the Hertz Fellowship, Horning was awarded the Scripps Deans Fellowship and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Among many other honors and awards throughout his education, Horning was a John Harvard Scholar and a National Merit Scholar. Hornings father, Mark Horning, is an attorney for Steptoe and Johnson, LLP, in Washington, D.C., and his mother, Kathleen Fallon, is a homemaker. His younger brother William is a junior studying computer science at Duke University, Durham, N.C.