5-Year NASA-Funded Research Grant Awarded

Research team to mine genomic data to infer universal aspects of the evolution of life in deep time

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been selected as one of five new research teams joining the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) to study the origin and evolution of life, on a five-year grant totaling approximately $8 million.

Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund Professor of Physics and leader of the Biocomplexity research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), 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. 

Nigel Goldenfeld explains: “So what is universal biology?  Looking at a modern computer, say a smartphone, compared to the first room-sized computers it’s hard to believe they are the same machine. Yet they are all examples of universal computation.  What now are the analogous general principles for living, evolving organisms?  Beyond speculation, can we actually test out theories with real data?  Modern genomics provide the data and tools to examine carefully the evolutionary relationships between parts of the cell.  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 says.

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, Davis, and Philip Hastings and Susan Rosenberg from Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston.

The research will be based in the university’s Institute for Genomic Biology.  “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,” says Gene Robinson, Director of the IGB. “The NASA award reflects the creativity and vision of the faculty in the Biocomplexity research theme, the IGB, and the campus as a whole.”

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 science 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.

Goldenfeld concludes “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?’  The NASA Astrobiology Institute is the most far-sighted attempt to address foundational questions that everyone asks at some time in their life.  We are thrilled to participate with them in perhaps the most important questions in all of science.”