Dr. Joseph Onyilagha, professor of Biology at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, has been selected to present his research on amino acids at Florida Memorial University. Funded by NSF/HBU-UP, the title of his presentation is, “Origin of Life on Our Planet: Why Did Nature Select Only 20 Amino Acids to Build Its Proteins?”


According to Dr. Onyilagha’s abstract, there was no life in the prebiotic world — only nine out of the 20 standard amino acids, which make up the genetic code existed during the period.


In his research, he asserts that evolutionary events resulted in a lifeless world giving rise to a world of abundant living organisms. How nature used only four nucleotides to build its proteins and forming the genetic code are intriguing. Three theories have been propounded about the origin of the genetic code, a) the stereochemical theory, which deals with codon assignments as determined by physico-chemical affinity between amino acids and the anticodons, b) the Coevolution theory, which hypothesizes that the code structure co-evolved with amino acid biosynthesis pathways, and c) the Adaptive theory, also known as error minimization theory, which is based on natural selection to lessen the detrimental effects of point mutations and translation errors.


Dr. Onyilagha’s research had two goals: to update the biosynthesis pathways of the 20 standard amino acids, and ascertain whether metabolic pathways found in living organisms can serve as accurate guides to ancient evolutionary events.


Dr. Onyilagha holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biochemistry from the University of Reading, England, U.K.. He previously attended the University of Ife and the University of Ibadan, all in Nigeria, where he obtained BS and MS degrees, respectively. Dr. Onyilagha was a post doctorate fellow at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and later accepted a position with Agriculture and Agri-Food, Canada at the Saskatoon Research Center.


After six years of research, he joined the Aboriginal Tribal Council of Canada at the Saskatoon Urban as a Project Manager responsible for education. Dr. Onyilagha left the Tribal Council in 2004 for The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio as a visiting Research Fellow. He joined the Blackeye-pea research group in the Department of Agriculture at UAPB in 2005, and later moved to the Department of Biology in 2010.


Dr. Onyilagha has published many peer-reviewed articles in learned journals. His present research interests are in the areas of molecular evolution, biochemical basis in plant-insect interactions, discovery of natural pesticides, medicinal plants of the tropical world, and ecology of plant leaf surface biochemicals.