Champaign, Ill., September 7, 2012 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 the
|Contact: Nicholas Vasi|
Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign