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UH professor named fellow by International Astrobiology Society

HOUSTON, Aug. 20, 2014 George E. Fox, a John and Rebecca Moores Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Houston (UH), was named a fellow in the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life (ISSOL).

Fox is one of four members two from the U.S., one from France and one from Spain chosen as fellows in 2014. Fellows are elected every three years, and 36 have been named since 1980. With more than 500 members from more than 20 countries, the ISSOL includes researchers from disciplines as varied as astronomy and molecular biology.

Fox was recognized for "exceptional and sustained contributions to ISSOL and the origin of life community." He was a co-discoverer of the Archaea, the third Domain of Life, which is a domain of single-celled microorganisms. These microbes have no cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles in their cells. The three-domain system is a biological classification that divides cellular life forms into archaea, bacteria and eukaryote domains. Archaea have unique properties that separate them from the other two domains.

His current research interests at UH's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics focus on understanding the early evolution of life through investigations of the structure, function and evolution of ribosomes. Ribosomes are the protein builders of a cell that connect one amino acid at a time to build long chains. The ribosome, a complex RNA/protein nanomachine, is responsible for coded protein synthesis in all three Domains of Life.

Genomic data indicates the ribosome had already achieved its modern level of complexity at the time of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) of all living things, which is the name given to a crude organism now traceable in all domains of life. LUCA is sometimes called the great-grandfather of evolution.

"The ribosome's evolutionary history, therefore, occurred in a time period that predates LUCA," Fox said. "Unraveling that history will provide insight to events predating LUCA. Moreover, the ribosome may have arisen in a prebiotic RNA World."

Currently, the Fox group is seeking to develop a detailed timeline of major events in ribosome history while attempting to demonstrate peptide synthesis by a small RNA that mimics the ribosome reaction center. His research is supported by the NASA Exobiology program and NASA's Astrobiology Institute Center for Ribosome Adaptation and Evolution at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Though once outside the mainstream of scientific inquiry, the term astrobiology was a formalized field of study as early as 1960. In 1998, NASA established the Astrobiology Institute to perform research in astrobiology, and the discipline became a global endeavor with international partners in Europe, Australia, Spain and England.

In 2005, the society determined that developments in interdisciplinary approaches of origin of life projects and the maturing astrobiology discipline provided an overlap in interest that needed to be reflected by ISSOL. The society voted and adopted a change in the name to reflect this and is now known as ISSOL, The International Astrobiology Society.

Contact: Lisa Merkl
University of Houston

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