Three CPLC faculty, Nigel Goldenfeld, Zan Luthey-Schulten, and Carl Woese, are part of a multidisciplinary team of UIUC researchers that has been recently invited to join the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and awarded a five-year research grant to study the origin and evolution of life. Goldenfeld, Professor of Physics and Biocomplexity theme leader at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), is the principle investigator on the NAI award. Luthey-Schulten, Professor of Chemistry and affiliated faculty in Physics, IGB, and Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology, and Woese, Professor of Microbiology and IGB faculty are two of thirteen co-investigators on the grant. The research team will utilize multiple approaches from fields of genomics, microbiology, geobiology, computational chemistry, and physics to investigate the idea of ‘universal biology’ – fundamental principles governing the evolution of life anywhere in the universe. One hypothesis being explored is that the earliest life existed as a collective undergoing rapid evolution. Complementary studies will focus on quantitative mutational analysis of cell stress adaptation as well as identification of signatures for the evolutionary transitions from communal life to individual organismal lineages.
Our cells contain little pieces of RNA called microRNA. Once considered junk snippets of RNA, microRNAs turned out to be one of the major regulators of gene expression. Specified by the sequence embedded within a short 21-22 base pair, microRNA targets a complementary mRNA and lead it to degradation. As a result, the corresponding DNA message does not get translated into a protein. Thus microRNA acts as a molecular eraser that cancels a message to avoid overproduction of a particular protein, for example. The molecular details of the gene silencing machineries have not been investigated thoroughly. Researchers led by Assistant professor, Sua Myong reported in recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Koh et al, 2013 Jan 2;110(1):151-6) that unexpectedly, the RNA binding protein, TRBP actively diffuses on RNA. When coupled with the cleavage enzyme, Dicer, TRBP’s diffusional behavior is capitalized on achieving accelerated cutting of the RNA. Professor Myong is a recipient of the 2012 NIH New Director’s Innovator Award (http://commonfund.nih.gov/newinnovator/Recipients12.aspx) which supports this project and development of experimental platforms to quantitatively assess the gene silencing pathway.