Two Baylor College of Medicine researchers will be collaborators on a new grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute to study the origin and evolution of life.

Dr. Nigel Goldenfeld, professor of physics and faculty member of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will serve as principal investigator, and Drs. Philip Hastings and Susan Rosenberg, both professors of molecular and human genetics at BCM, will collaborate on the project to characterize the fundamental principles governing the origin and evolution of life anywhere in the universe.

"It’s likely that life on Earth and life elsewhere may share the same foundation for survival that allows it to continue to evolve over time," said Rosenberg, the Ben F. Love Chair in Cancer Research. Finding out these universal aspects could help aerospace agencies in the future with recognition of life in other places.

Evolution of organisms

"If we want to bring organisms back to Earth—or bring organisms from Earth to other places in the universe—we need to understand to ask these fundamental questions," said Hastings.

"This is an exciting and fun project to join this outstanding group trying to understand the fundamental aspects of life," said Rosenberg. "Dr. Hastings and I are proud to be a part of it."

Rosenberg and Hastings will bring to the group their pioneering work in the study of how stress-induced mutation contributes to the evolution of organisms.

Studying dynamic disease models

"Human diseases, such as cancer or pathogenic bacteria, are rapidly changing and our immune systems have to play catch up," said Rosenberg. "When diseases kill, it’s because the disease pathogens out-run our immune system in an evolutionary arms race. We come back with drugs, like chemotherapy, but eventually the disease evolves to evade both our immune system and the chemical attack."

Rosenberg’s and Hastings’ labs seek to understand the mechanisms of how these diseases out evolve us, and try and beat them.

"Some people may wonder why medical scientists are involved in this project but we are studying very dynamic, evolvable disease models that win because we cannot stop their evolution," said Rosenberg.

Co-investigators on the research team include Elbert Branscomb, Isaac Cann, Lee DeVille, Bruce Fouke, Rod Mackie, Gary Olsen, Zan Luthey-Schulten, Charles Werth, Rachel Whitaker, and Carl Woese of the University of Illinois and Scott Dawson from the University of California, Davis.