The UI has been selected as one of five new research teams joining the NASA Astrobiology Institute to study the origin and evolution of life, on a five-year grant totaling about $8 million.
Nigel Goldenfeld, the Swanlund Professor of Physics and leader of the Biocomplexity research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology, will serve as the principal investigator. The goal is to characterize the fundamental principles governing the origin and evolution of life anywhere in the universe. This multidisciplinary effort to define and characterize "universal biology" will include the fields of microbiology, geobiology, computational chemistry, genomics and physics.
"We want to help answer not only the basic questions of 'How does life begin and evolve?' and 'Is there life beyond Earth?' but also 'Why does life exist at all?' Goldenfeld said.
"Modern genomics provide the data and tools to examine carefully the evolutionary relationships between parts of the cell," Goldenfeld said. "And even further, theory gives us a clear hypothesis to test: Namely that early life was a commune and indeed had to have been, based on general universal biology considerations related to the detailed structure of the genetic code."
The Illinois team will use genomics to explore deep evolutionary time, looking for signatures of early collective states of life. The group will also perform laboratory work to study in detail how individual cells sense, respond and adapt to changing environments. Lastly, the project will look for signatures of the major transitions that life must make as evolution changes character from being communal to the modern era where there are traceable individual organismal lineages. "It is important to develop the field of universal biology, because we may never find traces of life on other planets. But if we understand that life is generic, maybe even an expected outcome of the laws of physics, then we'll know for sure that we are not alone," Goldenfeld said.
Co-investigators on the research team include Elbert Branscomb, Isaac Cann, Lee DeVille, Bruce Fouke, Rod Mackie, Gary Olsen, Zan Luthey-Schulten, Charles Werth, Rachel Whitaker and Carl Woese from Illinois; Scott Dawson from the University of California at Davis; and Philip Hastings and Susan Rosenberg from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The research will be based at the IGB.
"This bold research program fits perfectly at the IGB, which was established to help faculty compete for the large grants that are necessary to address grand challenges with a team-based multidisciplinary approach," said Gene Robinson, the director of IGB.
In addition to the research, novel educational activities related to the field of astrobiology will take place. These will include not only formal education in astrobiology at the undergraduate level, but also a massively online open course as part of the university's initiative in this arena. Other public outreach will include a partnership with a science program at the middle-school level, the development of short Web-based videos on astrobiology concepts and findings called "AstroFlix" and a new astrobiology course for lifelong learners in the community.