URBANA — Do you ever look up into the sky and wonder, "Is there life beyond earth?" or "Why does life exist at all?"
Researchers at the University of Illinois do.
The big kind of questions that come and go in the middle of the night for many people also keep up physicists, chemists, geologists and other researchers. Now armed with an $8 million grant from NASA's Astrobiology Institute, a UI team aims to understand the general principles of life — life here on Earth billions of years ago and life possibly elsewhere in the universe.
Are there general principles that all life can be expected to follow here on Earth or on some distant planet?
"Can we figure out the general principles of life by looking very carefully at life we do know" on Earth, asked UI Professor Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund professor of physics and leader of the biocomplexity research theme at the UI Institute for Genomic Biology.
Goldenfeld has assembled an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the fields of microbiology, geology, chemistry, engineering and math in an attempt to answer such questions.
"In a nutshell, we are trying to look at the characteristics of life as it is now, and use those observations to tease out something about what early life had to have been like," Goldenfeld said.
NASA recently announced the UI was one of five new research groups invited to join the astrobiology institute to study the origin and evolution of life. Each group tackles a different research theme, and the UI's theme centers on what was happening, life-wise, on Earth roughly 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, before the rise of individual organismal lineages.
It follows up on research begun by notable UI microbiologist Carl Woese decades ago. Researchers know cells on Earth going back as far as 3 billion to 3.5 billion years were "pretty close" to modern ones, but prior to that? Research by Woese and Goldenfeld suggests early life on Earth was collective or communal, rather than individual. Genetic material would have been exchanged between contemporaneously living organisms, rather than vertically from parent to offspring, according to Goldenfeld.
"How did life evolve in the pre-Darwinian era? There had to be much more rapid evolution from nothing to something," he said.
In about a billion years (from about 4 billion to 3 billion years ago) life evolved from nothing to something — and that's pretty fast.
"We want to understand how that could have happened, how life would have evolved before Earth had modern cells," Goldenfeld said.
One way they're able to look back in time is by looking at the structure of the genetic code, to use genomics to learn more about this early stage of life.
"Our center really is putting the biology into astrobiology," Goldenfeld said about the field.
In addition to the research, education and outreach activities are planned, including a massively online open course, public outreach to middle schools, Web-based videos on astrobiology topics and more.
In addition to principal investigator Goldenfeld, the researchers in the theme 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.
In NASA's announcement of the new research teams, institute Director Carl Pilcher said the "intellectual scope of astrobiology is breathtaking, from understanding how our planet went from lifeless to living, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth's harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life."
"The new teams cover that breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI, they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances," Pilcher said in a statement.
Other research teams announced this month by the institute include the University of Washington, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Southern California.