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Elbert Branscomb

Department of Physics, University of Illinois
Biocomplexity research theme member, Institute for Genomic Biology
1206 West Gregory
Urbana, IL  61801

Biographical Information

Elbert Branscomb received his B.A. in physics from Reed College (1957) and his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from Syracuse University (1964). In 1964 he joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) as a theoretical physicist but transitioned to biology shortly thereafter, becoming a senior biomedical scientist in 1969.  His primary research focus was on inaccuracy in DNA replication and transcription: its biological consequences, the mechanisms by which it is controlled, and how heritable mutation rates might be measured in human populations. In 1986, when the Department of Energy (DOE) initiated a program to map and sequence the human genome, he assumed responsibility for the computational and mathematical component of LLNL's human genome program.  In 1996 when the DOE founded the Joint Genome Institute, Branscomb was named its initial director, serving in that capacity until the completion of the first publicly funded 'draft' sequence of the human genome in 2000. From 2000 to 2004, he held the position of Chief Scientist, US DOE Genome Program, in which capacity he assisted the DOE's Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the furtherance of its genomics-related research programs.  In recognition of his scientific contribution to LLNL and the DOE he was awarded the Edward Teller Fellowship in 2001.  In 2004 he was named an LLNL Associate Director with responsibility for leading its Biomedical Directorate, a position he held until shortly before retiring from LLNL in 2007.  Since moving with his wife Lisa Stubbs to the University of Illinois in 2008, he has held the position of Affiliate Faculty, jointly attached to the Department of Physics and the Biocomplexity Theme at the IGB.


Does life exist elsewhere or is our planet unique, making us truly alone in the universe?  Much of the work carried out by NASA, together with other research agencies around the world, is aimed at trying to come to grips with this great and ancient question.

“Of course, one of the most powerful ways to address this question, and a worthy goal in its own right, is to try to understand how life came to be on this planet,” said Elbert Branscomb, an affiliate faculty member at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “The answer should help us discover what is truly necessary to spark the fateful transition from the lifeless to the living, and thereby, under what conditions and with what likelihood it might happen elsewhere.”

While many ideas about this fundamental question exist, the real challenge is to move beyond speculation to experimentally testable theories. A novel and potentially testable origin-of-life theory—first advanced more than 25 years ago by Michael Russell, a research scientist in Planetary Chemistry and Astrobiology at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory—was further developed in a recent paper published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (PTRSL-B), the world’s first science journal, by Russell, Wolfgang Nitschke, a team leader at the National Center for Scientific Research in Marseille, France, and Branscomb.  (Russell MJ, Nitschke W, Branscomb E. (2013) The inevitable journey to being. Phil Trans R Soc B 368: 20120254)

Selected Publications

Branscomb EW, Stuart RN. (1968) Induction lag as a function of induction level. Biochenmical and Biophysical Research Communications, 32(4), 731-8.

Stuart RN, Branscomb EW (1971). Quantitative theory of in vivo lac regulation: significance of repressor packaging. I. Equilibrium considerations. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 31(2), 313-29.

Branscomb EW, Galas DJ (1975). Progressive Decrease in Protein Synthesis Accuracy induced by Streptomycin in E. coli. Nature 254, 161-164. Reprinted in Genes, Proteins and Cellular Aging, (R. Holliday, Ed.) one of a series, "Benchmark Papers in Genetics", (David L. Jameson, Ed.), Ross Publishing, New York.

Galas DJ, Branscomb EW (1976). Ribosome Slowed by Mutation to Streptomycin Resistance. Nature 262, 617-619.

Galas D, Branscomb EW (1978). The Enzymatic Determinants of DNA Polymerase Accuracy: Theory of T4 Polymerase Mechanisms. J. Molecular Biology 124, 653-687.

Carver JH, Hatch FT, Branscomb EW, (1979) Estimating maximum limits to mutagenic potency from cytotoxic potency. Nature 279 (5709), 154-6.

Clayton LK, Goodman MF, Branscomb EW, Galas DJ. (1979) Error induction and correction by mutant and wild type T4 DNA polymerases: Kinetic error discrimination mechanisms. Journal of Biological Chemistry, 254 (6), 1902-12.

Goodman MF, Watanabe SM, Branscomb EW. (1982). Passive polymerase control of DNA replication fidelity: evidence against unfavored tautomer involvement in 2-aminopurine-induced base-transition mutations. Basic Life Sciences, 20, 213-29.

Goodman MF, Keener S, Guidotti S, Branscomb EW (1983). On the Enzymatic Basis for Mutagenesis by Manganese. J. Biol. Chem. 258, 3469-3475.

Goodman M, Branscomb EW. (1986). DNA Replication Fidelity and Base Mispairing Mutagenesis. In : Accuracy in Molecular Processes : Its Contro l and Relevance to Living Systems, (T.B.L. Kirkwood, R.F. Rosenberger, and Galas, Eds.), London, pp. 191-232.

Branscomb E, Slezak T, Pae R, Galas D, Carrano A V, Waterman M. (1990). Optimizing restriction fragment fingerprinting methods for ordering large genomic libraries. Genomics, 8, 351-366.

Stubbs L, Doyle J, Shannon M, Kim J, Carver E, Mohrenweiser H, Ashworth L, Branscomb E. (1996). Detailed comparative analysis of human chromosome 19q and related regions of the mouse genome. Cytogenetics and Cell Genetics 74: (3), 185-186.

Lander ES et al. (2001) Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome, Nature 409: (6822), 860-921.

Hamilton AT, Huntley S, Kim J, Branscomb E, Stubbs L. (2003) Lineage-specific expansion of KRAB zinc-finger transcription factor genes: implications for the evolution of vertebrate regulatory networks, Cold Springs Harb. Symp Quant Biol. 68: 131-40.

Huntley S, Baggott DM, Hamilton AT, Tran-Gyamfi M, Yang S, Jim J, Gordon L, Branscomb E, Stubbs L. (2006), A Comprehensive catalog of human KRAB-associated zinc finger genes: insights into the evolutionary history of a large family of transcriptional repressors, Genome Res. 16 669-77.

Branscomb E, Russell MJ (2013), Turnstiles and bifurcators: The disequilibrium converting engines that put metabolism on the road, BBA-Bioenergetics 1827 62-78.

Russell MJ, Nitschke W, Branscomb E. (2013) The inevitable journey to being. Phil Trans R Soc B 368: 20120254.

M.J. Russell, L.M. Barge, R. Bhartia, D. Bocanegra, P.J.Bracher, E. Branscomb, et al., "The drive to life on wet and icy worlds", 2014, Astrobiology 14, 4, 308-343.

L. M. Barge, E. Branscomb, J. R. Brucato, S. S. S. Cardoso, J. H. E. Cartwright, et. al. "Thermodynamics, disequilibrum, evolution: far-froom-equilibrium geological and chemical considerations for origin-of-life research", Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres,   2017, 47, 1, 39-56.

E. Branscomb, T. Biancalani, N. Goldenfeld, M. Russell. “Escapement mechanisms and the conversion of disequilibria: the engines of creation”, Physics Reports, 2017, 677, 17, 1-60.