Publications in VIVO

Joyce, Gerald Faculty Member


Dr. Gerald Joyce studies the test-tube evolution of RNA and DNA enzymes, both to explore their potential biomedical applications and to examine their possible role in the early history of life on Earth.




research overview

  • Directed Evolution of RNA and DNA Enzymes

    Our research concerns the biochemistry of RNA and the development of novel RNA and DNA enzymes through in vitro evolution. Like their protein counterparts, nucleic acid enzymes assume a well-defined structure that is responsible for their catalytic activity. Unlike proteins, nucleic acids are genetic molecules that can be amplified and mutated in the test tube. Our laboratory has learned to exploit the dual role of nucleic acids as both catalyst and genetic molecule to develop RNA- and DNA-based evolving systems that operate entirely in vitro.

    We regard Darwinian evolution as a chemical process that can be used to develop novel enzymes with desirable catalytic properties. A population of variant molecules is subjected to repeated rounds of selective amplification in the test tube. Only those individuals that perform a chosen catalytic task are amplified so that, through successive rounds, the population adapts to the task at hand. With the more advanced techniques that we have been developed, it is possible to carry out over 100 “generations” of test-tube evolution in a single day, employing a population of trillions of catalytic nucleic acids. This makes it possible to evolve molecules at a far more rapid pace compared with the rate at which whole organisms evolve in nature.

    Our studies of RNA-based evolution are relevant to understanding the early history of life on Earth. It is believed that an RNA-based genetic system, termed the “RNA world”, preceded the DNA and protein-based genetic system that has existed for the past 3.5 billion years. Our research aims to recapitulate the biochemistry of the RNA world in the laboratory. We are using in vitro evolution to explore the catalytic potential of RNA, and especially to develop RNA enzymes that have the ability to catalyze their own replication.




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