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Institute for Universal Biology

Welcome to the website of the Institute for Universal Biology --- a NASA Astrobiology Institute located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and housed within the Institute for Genomic Biology.  The Institute for Universal Biology (IUB) was established in 2013, with participation from researchers at UC Davis, Baylor College of Medicine and affiliates at Michigan State University.  IUB is focused on addressing one of the most fundamental questions in astrobiology, and indeed all of science: How does life begin and evolve?

To address such a grand question, we are studying in detail how life began and evolved on Earth, with the hope that we can extract general principles applicable to all life, wherever it may arise. Our work begins with Carl Woese’s pioneering comparison of molecular sequences to map out of evolutionary relationships of all cellular life on Earth.  From his work, we know now that life on Earth descended from a common ancestor or ancestral state, around 3.5 billion years ago.  We will attempt to see even further back in time, uncovering features of the first billion years of life that have until now been inaccessible to us.  This can be accomplished by analyzing the behavior of judiciously chosen modern microbial systems and communities; by using detailed analyses of fully-sequenced genomes to explore for the first time cellular processes of the Archaea; and by focusing on specific organisms whose lifestyle and characteristics are exemplars for key evolutionary transitions.   These experimental projects will be combined with theoretical work which extends the scope of evolutionary theory --- currently very focused on genes --- to a period in time where genes as we know them had yet to emerge.  Our goal is to understand the major evolutionary transitions that occur in living matter, constrain the diversity of life, and govern the way in which energy and information are utilized by life.  In so doing, answers will begin to emerge to the question “Is there life beyond Earth?” 

The IUB team is a distinguished and diverse group of researchers, encompassing microbiology, geobiology, computational chemistry, genomics and even theoretical physics.  But we can’t succeed on our own.  We are supported by an extraordinary and dedicated team of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdoctoral fellows.  Moreover, through our Education and Public Outreach, we hope to diffuse our knowledge, research findings and of course, our excitement, to schools and the public at large. 

I hope you will take a moment to explore this website.  We believe that the questions we are addressing are fascinating to every person, and that they have scientific answers which are within our grasp.

Nigel D. Goldenfeld

Director, Institute for Universal Biology