Researcher profile: Karolina Spustova
Dr. Karolina Spustova recently completed her PhD in the Gözen group at NCMM. Karolina’s project aimed to understand how life evolved on the early Earth from primitive cells to complex systems.
Dr. Karolina Spustova on her disputation day. Photo: Nuru Saadi
Karolina describes her research, what she discovered and how she enjoyed being part of the Gözen group.
Can you describe your PhD project - what were you trying to discover and what were the overall aims of the project?
The emergence of life on the early Earth, and the transition from the non-living environment to the first living systems, still remains an unanswered question. Researchers all over the world are exploring the topic from different perspectives, but we will likely never know exactly how life originated as we cannot simply go back and have a look.
There are many hypotheses about the formation and development of the primitive cells and their precursor, the protocell. Some hypotheses assume that protocells had a membrane envelope made from fat molecules, similarly to what we see today in modern biological cells . In my project, I employed model membranous protocells and looked at their behavior on solid surfaces. Solid surfaces were abundant on the early Earth in the form of minerals and rocks, so their involvement in prebiotic reactions is feasible. Our aim was to understand the involvement of the membrane-surface interactions in the development of primitive cells into more complex systems.
What were the main findings from your project and what is their significance to this area of research?
A spherical membranous protocell can spontaneously form in water, but the following steps, such as growth, replication and division, are not as straightforward. We found out that when the model protocell attaches onto a surface, it can undergo a shape transformation and create internal compartments. These compartments can uptake different molecules from the environment, for example fragments of DNA, and create spatial separation of different environments within the same protocell. Moreover, if more membrane material is provided, the transformation process results in larger structures of hundreds of compartments, accumulated within the internal volume of the original protocell. Similar colony-like systems were hypothesized previously to create advantages for the primitive cells evolution, such as pathways for communication and sharing of molecules. These structures are also more resistant to the changes in the environment, for example osmotic pressure, which would be a benefit on the unstable environment of the early Earth.
What do the findings of your project mean for our understanding about the origin of life?
The features and evolution of the first living system is an ongoing debate. Our results provided a new perspective. In contrast to the hypotheses that the protocell evolved alone and then multiplied, our results suggest it could already exist within a colony-like structure, where numerous of them evolved together.
We also emphasize the role of mineral surfaces in the emergence of life. We know that the rocks and minerals existed on our planet from its formation and could have been involved in early Earth chemical reactions. Our findings show that the solid surfaces could also govern the transformation of the membranous protocell and enhance the development of the primitive cells.
What have you most enjoyed about your project?
The research in our group combines a variety of things I am interested in – soft materials, advanced light microscopy, micromanipulation. My project involved these techniques and many more, which was very exciting for me. With the advanced technology available in our laboratory, I was able to observe dynamic behavior of the biomembranes in real time. The structures observed under the microscope were beautiful – we even organized a gallery exhibition, Nanocosmos, where we showed micrographs from our experiments and received a nice reception from the public and artists.
Another thing I really enjoyed about my project was its multidisciplinary nature. I have a background in molecular and cell biology, and I was fortunate to collaborate with physicists, mathematicians, and many others. I learned a lot from various fields and got very valuable feedback on my research.
What motivates you to do your research?
I believe there are still many puzzles to solve and the fact that I can contribute with at least a small part, motivates me. I also enjoyed the discussions with my supervisor and group members, we always came up with new things to test and try. It was always exciting for me to start the next experiment and see the results.
During my PhD I was able to present my results at various conferences and meetings, where we received very encouraging feedback from researchers from our field as well as from others. Seeing that people find our research interesting and relevant is always a great motivation to go back to the lab and continue!
How have you found being a PhD student at NCMM?
I have really enjoyed my time at NCMM, the environment at the institute is very welcoming. It is also very international and with each group having a different focus, I explored various fields of science, which is always nice. Three years of PhD is a relatively a short period of time during which one has to manage research, courses and dissemination, so it was sometimes a bit of a challenge. However, I received a great support and a lot of help from my supervisor, coordinators and colleagues - this this made my journey a bit easier, and I am very thankful for that.
I also want to mention the great location of the institute - Oslo is a beautiful city with a lot of places to visit, and the close proximity of the forests and the nature is amazing. I tried cross-country skiing for the first time here, and it became my favorite sport activity!
What are your plans for the future?
I would love to continue the research and explore more about the emergence of the first primitive living systems. I really enjoyed my time in the laboratory, especially working daily with microscopes, so this is definitely something I would love to continue with. I would also like to explore more of science communication and public dissemination. I think the emergence of life research is a very interesting and exciting topic, and I would like to share it with a broader audience. However, right now I am looking forward to taking a break, spending some time with my family back home, and hopefully, continuing in research next year.
Read more about Karolina's research on the Wiley website.