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Evolution of life on Earth may hold key to finding life in outer space

Questions about the existence of life in outer space may have a surprisingly close-to-home answer, according to one University of Houston professor.

Understanding how life evolved on Earth is important in obtaining clues as to where else in the universe one might find life and what it might be like, said George E. Fox, a UH professor of biology and biochemistry. Fox is finishing work on a three-year research grant from NASA's Exobiology Program that seeks to understand life's origin.

In addition to his Earth-based research, Fox collaborated with the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) on a film project that explores the possibilities of life on other planets. Partially funded by an education and public outreach supplement to Fox's NASA grant, the joint production between HMNS and UH, called "Fantasy Worlds: Exploring the Limits of Life," is playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium at HMNS until December.

"Fantasy Worlds" explores extreme environments of Earth for a rare glimpse at microbes known as extremophiles that thrive in environments once thought too extreme to sustain life. Given the intense conditions under which these microbes are able to exist on Earth, the likelihood of finding life in outer space also increases. In "Fantasy Worlds," for each type of extremophile found, animators created a parallel imaginary alien planet on which these microbes are likely to thrive rather than just survive, allowing audiences to explore the types of alien worlds where scientists may one day find real alien life.

"All known living organisms on Earth share various biochemical properties, such as the same genetic code, the same major amino acids in proteins, and ?with minor exceptions ?the use of DNA or occasionally RNA as genetic material," Fox said. "This suggests life had a single origin from an earlier 'prebiotic' world, and research in NASA's Exobiology Program seeks to understand how this happened. The results of this type of research
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Source:University of Houston


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