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NASA to Provide $8M for U of Illinois Genomics Effort

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration has pumped $40 million into five new research grants to fuel efforts to develop biological tools and technologies to study the origins and evolution of life, including around $8 million to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to use genomics to understand early states of life.

Funded through NASA's Astrobiology Institute, the research teams will employ a range of biological and other disciplines, including genomics, microbiology, computational chemistry, geobiology, and physics, to characterize basic principles that may govern the rise of life anywhere in the universe.

Along with UI Urbana-Champaign, the other new Astrobiology Institute teams receiving funding, around $8 million each, include the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Southern California, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — though none of the others have a genomics focus.

The UI Urbana-Champaign team, based at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), will apply genomics approaches to "explore deep evolutionary time, looking for signatures of early collective states of life," the university said in a statement today.

The UI group also plans to study how individual cells sense, respond, and adapt to changing environments, and to seek signatures of the major transitions that drive evolution from being communal to a the modern era where there are traceable individual organismal lineages.

"It is important to develop the field of universal biology, because we may never find traces of life on other planets," Nigel Goldenfeld, a professor of physics and leader of the Biocomplexity research theme at IGB, said. "But if we understand that life is generic, maybe even an expected outcome of the laws of physics, then we'll know for sure that we are not alone."

"Modern genomics provide the data and tools to examine carefully the evolutionary relationships between parts of the cell," he added. "And even further, theory gives us a clear hypothesis to test: namely that early life was a commune, and indeed had to have been, based on general universal biology considerations related to the detailed structure of the genetic code."

Among the other projects being funded, the USC research team plans to use its funding to support projects using a range of approaches to detect and characterize Earth's subsurface microbial life. The University of Washington's team will use its funding to integrate computer modelling with lab and field-work to expand knowledge of the habitability of planets and astronomical biosignatures. The group at MIT will study how signs of life are preserved in ancient rocks on earth, focusing on the origin and evolution of complex life, and try to apply this knowledge to studies of Mars using the Curiosity rover. And a team at the University of Wisconsin will use the funding to study ways to detect life in modern and ancient environments on Earth and other planetary bodies.

"With the Curiosity rover preparing to investigate the potential habitability of Mars and the Kepler mission discovering planets outside our solar system, these research teams will help provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise needed to interpret data from these missions and plan future astrobiology-focused missions," John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a NASA statement.

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