“How does life begin and evolve?” This simple question, a central concern of astrobiology, remains today an enigma. This NASA Astrobiology Institute will explore how molecules come to life, by investigating fundamental principles of biology from a multidisciplinary perspective, encompassing microbiology, geobiology, computational chemistry, genomics and even physics.
Most of our understanding of the evolution of life has arisen following Carl Woese’s pioneering use of comparing molecular sequences to map out of evolutionary relationships of all cellular life on Earth. We know now that it descended from a common ancestor billions of 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. We will execute this goal by building what is in some sense the genomic analogue of the Hubble telescope, to see further back in time than has been possible by simple comparative genomics. 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?”
Our research work will be complemented by an ambitious Education and Public Outreach effort that emanates from the discoveries made at our NAI, and which involves a new middle school science teacher scientist partnership, the development of AstroFlix --- short web-based videos that inform about astrobiology concepts and new findings, new higher education online courses in astrobiology, and a astrobiology course for the life-long learners in the community.
This pathway of scientific inquiry will define the existence and nature of life elsewhere in the universe. These concepts are the intellectual underpinning of astrobiology and provide the scientific scaffolding for NASA’s Astrobiology Institute program.