Celia Blanco is Bridging Gaps Between Theoretical Physics, Astrobiology, and the Origins of Life

By Harvey Sapigao

Dr. Celia Blanco has always had a deep interest in physics, but she never dreamed of becoming the next Einstein or Newton. “I just studied physics ‘cause I like it,” she said. “I wasn’t really thinking of what will be next.”

Celia Blanco

Blanco considers herself a pragmatist, a carpe diem theoretical physicist who spends more thought in the present than the future. Blanco grew up in Madrid, Spain, where she also finished her PhD in physics in Complutense University of Madrid. She then moved to California to work as a postdoctoral researcher and project scientist before joining BMSIS as a Research Investigator.

Yet, as much as she likes living in the moment, her work revolves around the past, exploring how things became the way they are and tracing back steps to understand how life emerged. Her work explores all the way back, right from the moment early molecules favored a certain “life-building” orientation to the moment the first RNAs coagulated in a pool of hot sludge on primordial Earth (assuming that as one of the possible ways for early origins of life to have happened). One of her first works as a scientist revolved around a specific orientation of molecules called “chirality”.

Chirality is a property of objects in which its mirror image is distinct from its original form. An object is chiral when it cannot be transformed — by rotating or scaling or translating — such that it becomes identical to its mirror image. The most common example of a chiral object is our hands. No amount of rotating will make our left hand identical to our right. The only way to make it identical is to flip it, which is the same as taking its mirror image.

Much like our hands, chiral molecules have a certain ‘handedness’— they are either left or right-handed. Chiral molecules are said to be left-handed when they twist the polarization of the passing light to the left (or counterclockwise) and right-handed when they twist the polarization of light to the right (or clockwise).

Pairs of chiral molecules do not differ in any properties other than that of their handedness. Because of this, one would intuitively assume that both types of molecules must occur at the same amount in the universe. While this is potentially true in other places in the universe, this is certainly not the case on Earth. Chiral molecules synthesized in a lab yields a 50/50 balance between left-handed and right-handed molecules, but naturally created ones on Earth have a preference to one type of chirality over the other — a chiral imbalance. Most sugars extracted from plants, for instance, are right-handed (the sugar ‘dextrose’ was named after the latin word dexter, meaning right), and more amino acids are left-handed than right. Other organic compounds such as monocarbohydrates from which DNAs and RNAs are made also mostly appear right-handed.

To naturally synthesize chiral molecules, one would need a “factory” of the same chiral orientation; left-handed amino acids, for example, can only be created by left-handed intermediates. These intermediates are then only created using left-handed molecules, and so on. Tracing all the way back, why life leaned on one type of handedness over the other is the “holy grail” problem. “The big question in the origins of life,” said Blanco, “is how did life get there?”

This preference to a particular handedness, called molecular homochirality, is the main focus of Blanco’s research. In her PhD thesis, she explored different hypotheses explaining molecular homochirality. One hypothesis, called the Frank Model, theorizes that a small group of molecules of a certain handedness exploited a process that enabled them to proliferate and also annihilate their chiral counterpart. Still, much of the mysteries remain, and scientists like Blanco are working day-by-day to uncover these mysteries.

But that’s not where her work ends. As a postdoctoral researcher in UCLA, Blanco also worked on DNA and RNA sequencing and developed software tools to make data sequencing easier, which she has given quirky names such as EasyDIVER, ClusterBOSS, and DeCatCounter. 

One of her proudest works is her discovery of the importance of the amino acid arginine in the development of life. Described in their paper published in Current Biology, she and her colleagues found that arginine is the most dominant amino acid that drove the interactions between proteins and snippets of RNAs called aptamers. These interactions might have produced more complicated structures that eventually became the ingredients of life, and arginine, Blanco hypothesized, played a more major role in those than previously thought.

How did a theoretical physicist end up developing a knack for astrobiology and biochemistry? Blanco didn’t develop these interests until she took an undergraduate course about molecular processes. “I really liked that subject a lot,” she said,  “and it just happened to be related to the origin of life.” True to her personality, she explored this curiosity until she went on to write a PhD dissertation of the molecules of life.

But while Blanco’s expertise is veering towards experimentation, she has rarely worked in a lab. She is what a backend developer is to software — crunching codes and numbers behind the scenes and in front of the computer to help make experimentalists’ jobs easier. Ultimately, her goal is to connect seemingly disjointed fields to answer overarching questions. “What I’m hoping to do,” she said, “is build those bridges in between different fields and see what is common between those questions.” This task requires a jack-of-all-trades like Blanco, but unlike the consequent allusion to the famous phrase, she has probably mastered some of them.

When asked what her outlook on the future would be, she struggled to answer. “That’s the question that I don’t have an answer for,” she said. Much to her carpe diem mentality, she was less worried about the future than the present. “What’s the point of thinking [10 years] down the road when we don’t know what might come up next year?”

For now, she is focused on linking different fields and answering questions that come up along the way. Either that or crocheting, renovating her apartment, hiking, biking, rock climbing, spending time with friends and families, or whatever she finds enjoyable at (in) the moment.

Harvey Sapigao is a BS Physics graduate from the University of the Philippines Baguio. Follow him on twitter @hlsapigao or visit his website hlsapigao.com